I’m not a huge fan of potlucks. I know they are all the rage, but I just don’t get it. When I’m invited to dinner or to a party, I like to be served food that someone else has cooked. I figure it’s my night off from the kitchen.
So six years ago, when my friend Hope called proposing that a bunch of neighbors and friends spend the winter holding soup swap parties, I thought “No way!” before she even had a chance to explain the concept.
She was persuasive. “I love making a big pot of soup,” she began, “but I don’t love eating the same soup all week long. What if one person hosted a gathering and made a side dish, bread and dessert, and everyone else brought a pot of their favorite soup? We have a party, and then we all go home with a variety of leftover soups to eat the rest of the week.”
Hmm. Despite myself, I had to admit I kind of liked the idea. I cook one pot of soup, get to go to a party, and leave with a week’s worth of homemade soups.
The Second Sunday Soup Swap Suppers were born six winters ago in the small Maine town where I live. Hope chose six couples who love to cook. Every month during the long, snow-filled winter we got together, each time at a different home, and had a soup swap party. Some of us were neighbors and friends, some merely acquaintances, but over the course of six winters we became close. Soup brought us together.
Each soup swap party started with everyone introducing what they had brought.
“Hello, my name is Rebecca, and I went to the indoor winter farmers market on Saturday and found root vegetables and gorgeous organic rosemary and made my favorite childhood soup.”
“This is the matzoh ball soup my mother made every Passover.”
“My grandmother made this chestnut soup every Christmas.”
The first few times we got together, the soups were delicious but not particularly adventurous: chicken noodle, tomato bisque, lots of purees. But as the months and years passed, the soups became increasingly sophisticated. Soon enough, we would hear: “I tasted this noodle soup on a recent trip to Vietnam, where it was served at a stall at a night street market.”
People traveled for work and vacation, and in addition to bringing home souvenirs, they returned with soup recipes and with the exotic spices and other ingredients with which to make them.
Within a year, the soups began to reflect a far more adventurous spirit: Thai red curry noodle soup; Scottish smoked haddock and leek chowder; Indian mulligatawny; corn and sweet potato chowder.
Had we all turned into master soupmakers? Or was it that as we got to know one another better, we wanted to challenge and please everyone with ever-more-interesting soups?
What the soup swap parties taught us is that the simple act of making soup and sharing it with others is a great way to build a community. You don’t need to live in a small town. Soup swaps work just as well in urban neighborhoods, and with relatives, parent-teacher organizations, yoga classes, book clubs — you name it. The key is to start with a small group of people who love food and enjoy cooking. You’ll be amazed at how relationships deepen and grow, one pot of soup at a time.
Gunst, who lives in southern Maine, is the author of 15 cookbooks, including “Soup Swap: Comforting Recipes to Make and Share” (Chronicle, 2016), and is resident chef on NPR’s “Here and Now.” She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
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