Now, the thing about serious food people, as I've come to learn, is they don't really say bad things about other people's homemade food in public. They'll pass, but they won't dish. (I couldn't resist.) The highest and best form of compliment you as a food preparer can get in that (or any potluck) circumstance is to hear one person recommend your dish to another. As in, "Mmmmmm, the eggplant! You gotta try it."
I'm happy, too happy, in fact, to report that I overheard several comments along those lines. And the pleasure of it is two fold.
First, there's the basic ego gratification of getting a good grade. It's like, I did it! And I thought I'd overdressed it!
Second, there's the pleasure of knowing something you did or made can give someone else pleasure and some kind of sustenance. This isn't exactly altruism, because it's all wrapped up in getting the good grade, but it is especially nice. But I think it's one that's easy to forget about since preparing food from scratch can seem like such a burden, not only because of the time and the planning, but because now, everyone's a critic. We're all supposed to be so savvy and knowing about our food, so discriminating, that cooking for others becomes loaded with a whole lot else besides the pleasure of giving others pleasure and sustenance. The ego stuff starts to matter the most, because all those palates, they're so critical.
That's one more reasons why it's nice to cook for the professional crowd - they're so appreciative someone else did it. And if someone is a food writer, I thin they're glad that the recipes they develop actually get used.
A friend of mine once went to a dinner party that she described as "Fantastic!" Now this woman, N., is a true afficianado of the dinner party. Someday I'll describe the unbelievable scene at the first dinner party I ever went to, thrown by N. and her then boyfriend now husband. It was transcendent; the food was fabulous; the guests were interesting and engaged and grateful for the great food. But that fantastic dinner party N. told me about? She said the food was disgusting. The host and hostess were unabashed and terrible cooks who served overcooked meat and jell-o mold for dessert. And they weren't being ironic with the dessert. But the conversation! The spirit! Unsurpassed.
This is how I'd like to be in my cooking for others. I'd like not to be invested in the grade. I'd like for it not to matter if someone thinks the eggplant salad is overdressed. I'd rather focus on the experience of being together and seeing what can happen. Truthfully, one of my best dinner parties happened over one of the worst meals I ever made. No one cared that the meat was positively stringy (who knew to get a shoulder and not a loin?), everyone had a ball anyway.
Granted, I'm conflating hosting and cooking now, because making something for a pot luck is not the same as making a dinner party, but I think some of the same spirit could apply. As the pros don't say food at a pot luck is bad out loud, so us avocational cooks can take a breather on the grading, offer up what we have, and hope it's accepted in the spirit in which it's made. Which is to say, let's get together and see what happens! Not, let's get together and see who cooks the best. For that, I'll stick to Top Chef.