Around the Pot, part 3: Soups for swapping

It’s really hard to make soup for one.

A simple truth, sure. But Knox Gardner has turned that bare fact into a movement.

In 1999, Gardner, tired of being stuck eating his way through the same pot of soup, called a couple of friends and asked them to come over to his tiny Seattle cottage. Bring your own homemade soup, he said, parceled out into small containers. He’d been playing a lot of “Pit” – the stock-trading based card game – and envisioned some friendly horsetrading around the dining room table – “I’ll give you two corn chowders for one of those minestrones …”

The trading turned out to be bit more freeform than that, but in the years that followed “Soup Swap day” became a winter tradition in his circle – and when Gardner moved to Boston his friends decided they didn’t need him to stoke the soup flame. Instead, they coordinated. East coast and west both held a swap on the same day – and National Soup Swap Day was born.

Now, on Gardner’s website, soupswap.com, hundreds of avid soup swappers celebrate National Soup Swap Day with recipes, video testimonials to their soups, and news of soup swaps scheduled nationwide – not to mention links to the press coverage that’s followed everywhere from NPR to Good Day Sacramento!

“Soup is such a weird food,” says Gardner, who’s since moved back to Seattle. “It’s tied very much to comfort and tradition and community and sharing. I never thought about it before I started this thing, but now for sure I get it.”

On his website, Gardner lays out the “rules” for a successful swap. They’re pretty simple, and not terribly strict: Get some friends – preferably ones who like soup – and pick a place to swap. Ask them to bring six quarts of soup, labeled with the ingredients. If six quarts seems onerous, shoot for four quarts, or, as my friend Bonnie did when she threw a swap this winter, a tidy three.  Everyone gets a number, as at your post-Christmas White Elephant party, and you go around the group in order till all the soup is gone (no soup stealing allowed).

The best part, says Gardner, happens before the swapping starts, when every swapper steps up to say a little something about their soup.

“In Seattle we’ll have 20 soups, and 35-40 people,” he says. “And we have people who come to our soup swap who have never met, ever—but they get up in front of this room of people and they say, ‘I made this soup and it’s my grandma’s recipe and it has this in that, or that,’ and it’s just awesome, it’s a really powerful moment.”

Serious swappers can get competitive – Gardner jokes of tall tales of soups made from grain hand-washed by Swedish virgins and ancient family recipes passed down in secret through generations.

But it’s all in good fun – and sometimes surprising connections can ensue. After Gardner mentioned on his blog that he and his partner are working on adopting a baby, he got an email from a fellow swapper in rural Ohio. “She’s very conservative, and she runs a blog, all about Jesus, and she and her husband have adopted 5 Russian children,” he told me. “And she sent us a note, and it just started this three-month-long exchange that was just awesome– this conversation about adoption with this woman who I would never have met otherwise, and who I thought, from her blog, would be really against me and my partner adopting.”

Soup swaps have been slow to find fans in big cities like New York and Chicago, but in smaller communities, swaps are hot – something Gardner attributes to stronger twinned traditions of home cooking and church suppers. Swaps are also a frugal move; and small towns have been disproportionately impacted by the recession. And, hell, outside major metropolitan areas people may just have more real estate – it’s hard to host a swap in your studio apartment.

Whatever the reason, experience supports Gardner’s generalization: My own attempts to find a swap in the Chicago area were repeatedly thwarted. Possible swap hosts didn’t follow through; another swap was cancelled. Finally, in mild desperation and heeding Gardner’s mandate to “Swap when you can!,” I convinced my friend Bonnie to host one herself.

Last Sunday two dozen friends and neighbors – one from directly across the hall —  descended on the duplex apartment Bonnie shares with her husband, two children, and two cats. It’d been a rough week: Her husband, Ted, lost his copywriting job and Bonnie had only been working part-time herself. But she was determined to put a positive spin on their current fortunes – “More time for cooking, and swapping!” she said, brandishing a wooden spoon.

Bonnie made a cream of artichoke soup out of the first edition of the Soup & Bread Cookbook. When she ran it through the blender, though, it turned a distressing shade of khaki. So she freestyled, tossing in bits of parsley until it developed an enticing green.

“Making this soup taught me that I could riff on a recipe,” she said when it came time for her to talk about her soup, adding that she made the soup for her husband, who had never eaten an artichoke until they met.

Her soup shared a crowded table with tubs and jars and Ziploc bags full of wild mushroom, hot and sour, chicken tortilla, and two versions of butternut squash soup. Some were fancy – Molly, who used to work for Bonnie at the Chicago Park District, accessorized each container of her pumpkin soup with a little baggie of Parmesan and a small green apple, to be sprinkled and sliced (respectively) over the top. Jessica, a journalist, apologized for the no-frills look of her vegan split pea soup, which she’d delivered in plastic tubs swiped – with permission – from the hot bar at Whole Foods.

Kate, Bonnie’s sister in law, brought three different soups, all whipped up by her Polish babysitter – pickle soup, white borscht, and a chicken-split pea concoction called “zupka,” which simply means “soup.” This news made the rounds to some covetous sighs, the babysitter’s soup skills being, apparently, the stuff of neighborhood legend.

In three lighting rounds it was gone: First the wild mushroom, then the hot and sour, the onion, and the chicken tortilla (with chips, cheese, and cilantro on the side). Jessica’s split pea was one of the last to go. “Oh, wait! Look!” she quipped to her neighbor. “Someone’s touching it!”

Later I asked my friends Guy and Kristin – an actor/meat eater and a photographer/vegetarian – how they prepared for their first soup swap. The veggie butternut squash with jalapeno they supplied was a favorite recipe and a no-brainer, they said. But they engaged in “an embarrassingly long discussion on the merits of a Ziploc bag (Kristin) versus a firm container (Guy).” Guy won, and Kristin gussied the Tupperware up with kitchen twine and cards inked with the recipe.

Next time, said Bonnie, “I’m giving out door prizes – like, for ‘most colorful soup’ and ‘best packaging.’”

“I get soup in my freezer—that’s about it,” Knox Gardner told me, when I asked what he got out of his creation — though he said he was thinking of maybe selling Soup Swap aprons online to at least pay for his server. “That, and warm and fuzzy feelings.”

Bonnie agrees. A few days after the swap she and her husband ate their friend Fran’s spinach soup for lunch together at home, without children. “We were really happy — it’s the most we’ve laughed in a long time,” she said. “There’s certainly some joy to be had in NOT working.”

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One Response to “Around the Pot, part 3: Soups for swapping”

  1. Fennel Soup with a Swirl « Soup and Bread Says:

    […] the Artichoke, which was just nominated for a James Beard award, in a roundabout way thanks to the soup swap she hosted last month. A friend of a friend approached her at the gym and said, “I heard you […]

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