Archive for the ‘around the pot’ Category

The cookbook has left the building

June 7, 2011

It’s true. We shipped it off to Agate yesterday. Hooray! And now … we wait.

The book’s not due out until November. But we’ve got some other projects on our plate in the meantime, though. For one, we just found out we’ve been accepted into next month’s Coterie Chicago craft fair, which means three days of hanging around in a tent at Pitchfork listening to the bands from far away. We’ll have recipe cards, aprons, and art prints for sale, as well as some of the few remaining copies of the first Soup & Bread Cookbook and, hopefully, some new recipe boxes from Devon Bergman. If you’re making the rounds, come say hi! And, if you know of another craft fair we should try to crash this season let us know.

When we’re not sitting around city parks sweating onto our merch, we’re going to be working on redesigning this website. The launch date is still TBD, but we promise that you, the Soup & Bread audience, can look forward to better navigation, better shopping options, better recipe organization, and just all-around better betterness. If you have any suggestions to make the Soup & Bread web presence more user friendly, we’re all ears.

In the meantime, stay cool! We suggest gazpacho. Or a nice vichysoisse.


Around the Pot, part 4: Re-Thinking Soup

March 22, 2011

While Upton Sinclair was researching The Jungle, the muckraking 1906 novel that exposed in grisly detail the dangers of the Chicago stockyards at the turn of the last century, he often stopped on Halsted Street to eat dinner in the Residents Dining Room at Hull House, the pioneering settlement house on Chicago’s near west side. Gertrude Stein dined there as well, and WEB DuBois, and Ida B. Wells – and so did hundreds of impoverished recent arrivals from Italy, Greece, Poland, Lithuania, and beyond.

Driven to improve the immigrants’ chances at a creating a better life in Chicago, Hull House founder Jane Addams and her fellow crusaders agitated against child labor and for safe housing and sanitary working conditions, and provided a social outlet for all comers. Hull House volunteers offered classes in literature and art; presented lectures and plays; served dinner and staged dances. And when they realized industrial workers nearby had nowhere to get a hot, healthy lunch, they brought the food to the factories – trucking over vats of soup from the Hull House kitchen and offering a bowl, plus a piece of bread and a cup of coffee, for just five cents.

They could have just started a soup kitchen, Lisa Lee — the executive director of what’s now the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago — told me, but Hull House was never a charity. “They expected people to donate something in return, whether it was their cultural capital, their social capital, or just the five cents. It was not a place where they were giving handouts.

“That’s where we came up with the name ‘Re-Thinking Soup,’ she adds. “Because it was about rethinking what it means to serve soup for free in world where people say there is no free lunch.”

Inspired in equal parts by Hull House’s legacy of outreach and by Slow Food guru Carlo Petrini’s dictum that engaged citizens should be “co-producers” of the food they eat, the museum’s Re-Thinking Soup program is, on it’s face, just that: a free lunch of soup — and bread — served every Tuesday in the historic Hull House dining room. But there’s more on the menu than just split peas. Each week Re-Thinking Soup also features programming designed to spark conversations about food, sustainability, nutrition, politics, and community. Speakers have included farmers and foodies; academics and activists. One week there might be a film on water preservation; another a beekeeper speaking on colony collapse distorder.

Artist Sarah Kavage (above) spoke in 2010 about her Industrial Harvest project tracing the role of the commodity wheat market in the global food system. At her Hull House talk she gave away five-pound bags of flour and urged recipients to cook with it, share the food with others, and then get back to her with news of what had become of it. (For more on her project, see my August 2010 story in the Chicago Reader.)

On a raw day earlier this month, it was standing-room only for Mari Gallagher‘s presentation on food deserts –  the popular (and somewhat controversial) term used to describe underresourced neighborhoods whose primary food sources tend toward convenience stores and fast food outlets. The long refectory tables were covered with brown butcher paper and set with pertinent reading matter, like Joan Dye Gussow’s This Organic Life and Marion Nestle’s What to Eat. Some lunchers, opting to take their carrot-ginger soup sans PowerPoint, carried their bowls outside and dined al fresco along the walkway connecting the dining hall to the Hull House Museum.

Carrot-ginger soup was on the menu for the very first Re-Thinking Soup as well. The carrots came from far away – Mexico maybe, or Chile – and were a strategic choice made to help facilitate discussion of the difference between local and organic foods, help diners understand the concept of food miles and, in the words of Hull-House Food Preservationist Tara Lane, “show how the carrot relates to us all.”

Re-Thinking Soup is the collective brainstorm of Lane, Lisa Lee, and another professional cook, Sam Kass. Kass turned the program over to Lane in 2009 when he moved to Washington DC to serve as the Obama family’s personal chef (a job he’d held for a while) and the administration’s Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives. He’s famous now, the face of Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden and her campaign for healthy food for kids, but in the early 2000s Kass and Lane worked together at Blackbird, Paul Kahan’s pioneering fine-dining restaurant on Chicago’s Randolph Street restaurant row, not so far from Hull-House as the crow flies, but culturally an ocean away.

Kass was a line cook and Lane was the executive pastry chef, but both were interested in the bigger food picture, looking for ways to develop as activists and educators. “I wanted to stay in the conversation about food,” says Lane, “but I wanted to shift my focus to what was happening around food justice issues, and farming, and the distribution of local food. I was tired of spending endless hours just cooking.”

Lane, Kass, and Lee dug into the history of the settlement house and, specifically, its dining room, looking for ways to link food to Hull-House’s mission of education and social justice . What they came up with, was soup.

A museum is so much more than a repository of artifacts, says Lee, with vigor. “As cultural institutions we should be sites that foster radical democracy, that encourage dissent and conversations.”

Until 2006, she adds, the Arts and Crafts-style Residents’ Dining Hall, built in 1903, was off limits to the public. But at some point, Lee realized standard models of museum programming – lectures, gallery talks – had become a bore. “We were sick of doing like, ‘here’s the microphone’-type events,” she says. “It’s a dining hall, we have a kitchen, maybe we should actually be eating in it, you know?”

“When we first started it we just said, ‘Lets just make a pot of soup and see what happens,” says Lane. “We knew what we wanted to do, but we didn’t know how it would translate. I mean, we didn’t even know if people would show up!”

They did – and still do, UIC students and staff, foodies and the curious, and those just on the hunt for a hot lunch. One guy, who works on the university’s facilities staff, told me he tries to come every week, “for the camaraderie, and because you learn about good foods, and gardening — because they’re right, the food we eat sucks.”

Nowadays Lane is in charge of programming. Her sister Jess is the Hull-House chef, and handles the weekly soup, whose ingredients are often dictated by the harvest at the Hull House farm a block away. The farm, run by Ryan Beck, grows garlic, kale, tomatoes, cauliflower, and more – but it’s primarily an educational enterprise, rather than a true production farm.

“We use it as a teaching tool for telling the story of Jane Addams,” says Lane, citing a well-known bit of Addams lore, in which the well-bred reformer delighted in her first encounter with a strange bulb called garlic, thanks to an Italian neighbor who introduced her to spaghetti and ragu.

That bowl of spaghetti helped Addams understand that food was critical to understanding the immigrant experience. “It helped her come to grips with cultural difference,” says Lee, “and with the potential for bridging that difference – she realized that it was one potential avenue for social transformation.”

Now the Hull House farm grows 6,000 heads of garlic a year, and it’s used in the base of every soup.

Lane and Lee took Re-Thinking Soup to 2008’s Slow Food Nation in San Francisco, and to a museum conference in England in 2010, where they made 50 gallons of soup in one of Jaime Oliver’s kitchens and trucked it to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of a talk about how museums can foster social change. Now the V&A and the Royal Academy of Arts are considering their own soup-based programs, as is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York.

“We don’t want to treat the visitors here as just consumers of information,” says Lee. “Our value as human beings has been reduced to our value as consumers, and for us it’s like, well, how do you really value people as sentient human beings — as feeling, thinking, tasting, desiring human beings?”

Image sources: 1.  “Seven female social activists sitting and standing at a long table in a room,”  Chicago Daily News photographer, 1928. The digital image is archived at 2. Hull-House Museum. 3. my iPhoto account 4. 5. 6. 7.

Around the Pot, part 3: Soups for swapping

March 3, 2011

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,, 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.”

Around the Pot, part 2: Soup for art

February 14, 2011

“Oh my god – how cool would it be if we let people pick where they want to sit and put the tables together themselves? They’d be self-directing their experience!” That’s Amy.

“Yes! It’s like, ‘We’ve already envisioned the beginning for you – now we’re giving the tools to make it yourself!” That’s Kate.

It’s Superbowl Sunday and the snow is falling fast, but in the loft above the Mexicantown Bakery on the southwest side of Detroit, neither the weather nor Vince Lombardi are on anyone’s mind. Instead, Kate Daughdrill and Amy Kaherl are huddled in the middle of the loft pondering the logistics of lo-fi decorating. The space is littered with chairs, dusty tables, throw pillows, bundles of shredded newspaper, and mysterious pieces of wood, and in less than three hours more than 100 people are expected to arrive for soup.

More precisely, they’re coming for Detroit SOUP, a monthly soup dinner started by Daughdrill and musician Jessica Hernandez, whose parents own the bakery building, as a way of bringing together friends, fellow artists, and community organizers to talk, make connections, and raise a little bit of money for worthy projects. Guests pay $5 for a bowl of soup, a plate of salad, and some bread (beer and wine cost extra), and at some point at every SOUP night a handful of creative types stand up and pitch their current projects – and explain how they could benefit from a couple hundred bucks. The diners step into a custom-built voting booth and cast ballots  — and the project with the most votes takes home the door. In 2010 Detroit SOUP raised about $4,500, in increments of $300 or $400 at a time, and funded everything from an initiative to manufacture sturdy, thermal “sleeping bag” coats built by and for the city’s homeless to a hand-drawn, limited-edition Detroit coloring book.

One year later, SOUP is at a turning point. When Daughdrill and Hernandez invited Detroit to the loft a year ago, perhaps 20 people showed up. Now, the monthly events draw enthusiastic crowds, and organizing them has become a full-time, unpaid job. After tonight, they’ll be scaled back to quarterly meals (the next one’s in May) and Daughdrill, an MFA student at the nearby Cranbrook Academy of Art, is stepping away to focus on her own artwork. Kaherl, a seminary student turned grant administrator, is stepping in as the primary organizer.

“Every time I do SOUP,” she says, “It feels sort of like what ministry is supposed to be. I mean, you’re bringing people together and creating community around something beautiful, and asking really good questions. What could be better than that?”

People in Detroit talk like this a lot: Forging strong new communities in their embattled ruin of a city is in the forefront of many minds. But Detroit SOUP is just one of (at last count) 27 such artist-driven soup projects around the country – and the world.

Chicago artists Bryce Dwyer and Abigail Satinsky credit their friend and co-collaborator Ben Schaafsma with seeding the idea, basing it on a soup subscription service in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. When Schaafsma moved from Grand Rapids to Chicago to go to art school, he joined up with Satinsky and another student, Roman Petruniak, to start the arts collective InCUBATE; Bryce joined them a year later. In 2007 they launched a program called Sunday Soup out of their storefront space next to Chicago’s historic Congress Theatre.

Sunday Soup happened once a week for about a year – a casual event get-together that raised perhaps $125 to $250 a week for local, small-scale art projects. But as anyone who’s thrown themselves into a labor of love will tell you, they’re a lot of work.

“We started Sunday Soup because we were working against the professionalizing atmosphere for grant-seeking artists and organizers,” Satinsky reflected in a 2010 essay for Chicago-based Proximity magazine. “We wanted to create an immediate and simple source of funding for creative projects. Yet this project is also dependent on the volunteer labor of the organizers who must have their own jobs to keep these micro-initiatives afloat…. What is our responsibility to keep the thing going, even though it can sometimes feel like another full-time job? Is it really sustainable if it depends on us in this way?”

In 2008, just after InCUBATE swapped the weekly events for a monthly Sunday Soup brunch, the group collaborated with the arts collective Material Exchange to install a soup café in New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, as part of Creative Time’s “Democracy in America” project. In a space outfitted with repurposed and scavenged furnishings, they invited a handful of artists and fellow travelers to cook soups and give talks for a week. The New York soups raised $1,500 to fund a large-scale installation by artist Robert Snowden at the border of Tijuana and San Diego, but the impact of the show rippled far past that one project, as artists and budding arts administrators who’d been at the show toted the model home with them. InCUBATE also staged Sunday Soups in Houston and Buffalo, and Creative Time published a “Democracy in America” book, featuring Sunday Soup, as well.

“By going to these exhibitions we met a lot of people,” says Bryce, “and the book circulated widely, and it sort of instantly made legitimate this weird meal thing we did in Chicago.”

“It was an exciting way of building outward,” says Abby. “We weren’t saying, hey here’s this model, take it on.’ We were sort of openly struggling with a bunch of stuff — questions, like, ‘What does it mean that we’re doing all this volunteer labor as artists in this exhibition, making you food to raise money for other artists? What is this weird structure we are operating in? What kind of careers are we going to have?’ Having other people take up those elements and do their own projects is has been really awesome.”

From Seattle to Dubuque to Kiev these initiatives vary wildly in scope and structure – and they’re not limited to just soup: Brooklyn FEAST (“Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics”) serves meals for 2000 out of a Greenpoint church basement. Baltimore Stew is a collaboration between an artists’ collective and an anarchist bookstore, serving four-course meals cooked from locally sourced produce, and raising money for social justice projects. Philly Stake (get it?) is funded by a grant from the Pew Foundation; the Hartford FEAST was founded by a city councilman.

In the last year or so, as interest in cooking and alternative food systems has spiked, they’ve started to get attention from the mainstream. In August 2010, Detroit SOUP was profiled in the New York Times; in April of the same year St. Louis Sloup turned up on the NPR program “Marketplace.”

Ben Schaafsma didn’t get to see his idea take off  – he died in October 2008, a month after the Armory show, after he was struck by a car in New York City. In the wake of his death, InCUBATE retrenched, and reassessed. In late 2010 they launched a website — – that serves as a clearinghouse for information about similar food-based fundraisers nationwide, but Chicago’s Sunday Soup is on hiatus. “’I’ve never felt that someone should credit us, necessarily,” says Abby, when asked if she feels any sense of ownership of the idea.

“Just letting it go is kind of the only thing that ensures that it perpetuates itself,” adds Bryce.

And, adds Abby, “On an emotional level, this was something that we worked on with Ben – it was something he worked really hard on, and to see it have it’s way out in the world is really meaningful in a really, really deep way. I don’t think any of us have any interest in being proprietary. Something really great has started, and what’s important is that I feel a meaningful connection to people in different places that I would never have had the opportunity to have.”

Kate Daughdrill started hearing about Sunday Soup and other soup doings in 2009 – and after checking out Brooklyn Feast and Portland Stock she and Hernandez decided to launch their own. “We were looking for something that would bring creative people together to connect and support each other,” Daughdrill says, “and have conversations about the creative and often community-based production happening in the city.”

By 7 PM on the night of the anniversary party, the loft had been transformed. Under the direction of an artist friend, Dan Demaggio, strings of tiny white lights sparkled around the bar and draped over tents on the stage.  “Trees” topped with pompoms of shredded newspaper anchored piles of throw pillows, creating what Kaherl dubbed “pods of community” around café tables stacked with crates of thrift-store dishes. A dozen doors donated by a local architectural salvage firm leaned against one wall, waiting to be turned into long, low tables by the crowd, per Daughdrill and Kaherl’s afternoon brainstorm.

And then, the crowd tromped in from the snow. Cute 20-somethings in oversized glasses mingled with beardy artists and a handful of well-turned out types in pumps and pencil skirts, waiting for that night’s soup – a veggie, tomato-based “stone soup,” complete with rock in the bottom of the pot, cooked up by artist Phreddy Wischusen — to be served. But first Daughdrill gave a little speech, and brought seven of the 2010 grant recipients up to the mike to give quick updates on their projects.

“I was running on empty,” said Veronika Scott, the College of Creative Studies student who devised The Empowerment Plan, the “sleeping bag coat” project. She was broke, burned out, and about to give up when she won a SOUP grant last year. The money gave her the fuel to pitch her plan to Carhartt, which signed on to fabricate 25 initial coats. In January, she was on CNN.

During the meal, other diners got up to talk about the soup projects they were starting at home: In Hamtramck, in Dearborn, and at a semi-abandoned Corktown apartment complex called Spalding Court.

“We just want to give this idea away,” said Daughdrill, from the mike. “Just as we were inspired by other soup projects to do our own, we want you to feel free to take the idea home with you and do what you want with it. Because the real work always gets done in small groups, in our neighborhoods and our communities.”

Photo Friday: Detroit Soup

February 11, 2011

I hopped the train to the Motor City last weekend for a dizzying 24-hour trip to buy a Chrysler check out the action at Detroit Soup, which celebrated its one-year anniversary on Sunday night. I hope to have something more comprehensive written up by Monday, but thought I’d take the chance to share what really should be stills from a stop-motion film. I wandered into the Soup space — a gorgeous, but barren, loft above a Mexican bakery — around 3:30 on Sunday afternoon and it looked like this. Over the course of three hours, as the sun set and the snow fell (and fell),  it was transformed into a soup-friendly fairyland.

Many thanks to Kate Daughdrill, Jessica Hernandez, and Amy Kaherl for letting me poke around in their soup business! More soon.

Around the Pot, part 1: Soup for (more than) sustenance

January 9, 2011

Five p.m. on a raw Tuesday night and the line outside All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Ravenswood already stretches down Wilson Avenue from the parish hall door to the corner. Tuesday is food distribution day at Ravenswood Community Services, the nonprofit social service agency that runs – on the spindliest of shoestrings – a food pantry and community kitchen at the church.

Outside, the line grows longer – on an average night RCS serves a nourishing hot supper to 125 people and provides bags of milk, bread, and shelf-stable staples to at least 300. Inside, associate rector Rev. Fran Holliday anxiously watches over the five hulking pots of veggies and stock she’s got going at a rolling boil on the stove in the pristine but tiny basement kitchen. Holliday’s not usually the Tuesday cook. RCS relies on regular rotating teams of volunteers to plan and prepare the weekly meal. And, though you’d be tempted to call the RCS operation a “soup kitchen” (and though it is classified as such by the Greater Chicago Food Depository) soup is rarely on the menu. But the regular first Tuesday team, led by a local caterer, is on vacation, so Holliday’s stepped into the breach. She’s never cooked for this many before, but with stacks of canned, donated chicken on hand, she’s going out on a bit of a menu-planning limb with a hearty chicken noodle soup.

Soup’s a challenge for RCS, she explains.  Unlike a cafeteria-style operation, the Tuesday night meals are served family-style at large round tables – and it’s a logistical puzzle to deliver bowls of hot soup through the crowded parish hall efficiently. And, also,  those who come to RCS to cook and eat food – who are referred to, and refer to each other, as “neighbors,” in a deliberate avoidance of traditional social-service categories of “clients” and “providers” — often have specific nutritional needs that soup doesn’t always meet. “We try to give people a lot of calories and protein,” she says. “Something that will stick to the ribs.”

Hence, the 20 pounds of pasta shells Holliday parcooked on Monday. Now, bowls heaped with chunks of chicken and pans loaded with pasta stand at the ready.  “It’s an experiment,” she says, eyeing the bubbling pots. “We’re just going to see how it goes.”

“I really want to make sure we get a lot of gunk in there,” says Jori, a medical researcher at the U. of C. and experienced volunteer whose regular cooking team is making beef stew the following week, but has been wrangled by the Rev. into pitching in tonight. She moves from pot to pot, ladling broth from each into a sixth pot to make room for the addition of plenty of protein and carbs.

Like most such efforts, the community kitchen and food pantry run on the backs of volunteers – some All Saints’ parishioners, others neighborhood residents. Every Tuesday, 30 to 50 of them cook and serve food, wash dishes, bag and distribute groceries, set up and break down chairs and tables, answer questions, and simply sit and talk with their neighbors during the meal.

“People come in and often they’ll sit at the same table every week,” says  RCS executive director Wendy Vasquez. “They sit with their friends and get here early so that they have time to get a cup of coffee and hang out. And we have a few volunteers who, that’s what their volunteer presence is – they come, they sit at tables, and they just sort of get to know people and talk to people, and listen.”

The community kitchen program started out as a ministry of All Saints’ back in 1993. Then, the parish ran a rudimentary food pantry – distributing maybe 20 bags of groceries a week literally, according to Vasquez, “out the front doors of the church.”

As the number of grocery bags grew, All Saints’ started to let people congregate inside and, one day, as the crowd was hanging out, someone decided to order pizza. After that, says Vasquez, “they did it maybe once a month, and then it became this weekly thing where you could come, have a hot meal, and take a bag of groceries when you leave.”

RCS spun off from All Saints’ in 2001, and now has its own small staff and rotating teams of weekly volunteers. The food pantry has grown from distributing 20 bags a week to 300, and RCS runs an additional outdoor pantry in the parking lot of Ravenswood School, distributing up to 12,000 pounds of food each month.

In the fall and winter of 2008, when the recession was hitting full force, says Vasquez, “our line doubled in the course of a few months. People would be walking home from the train and they’d come in and be like, ‘What’s going on? Do you need some help?’ They would just literally jump off the street and volunteer.”

That doesn’t happen so much any more, she says, but tonight Mike, an investment banker, has landed in the kitchen for the first time after following just that trajectory: He was driving home from work, got curious about the line, and decided to get involved.  Now there’s an apron over his work clothes and he’s tasked with slicing and apportioning pieces of pineapple-cherry-coconut “dump cake” into bowls for dessert while Fran and Jori distribute fistfuls of chicken and pasta among the pots, eyeballing the levels to make sure they don’t overflow, stirring gently with a long wooden spoon.

“This almost looks like a pozole,” says Jori, peering into a pot of what’s now a dense, golden stew of shells, chicken, and veggies.

“Really, what we want is a ‘stewp,’ ” says Fran. “Somewhere between a soup and a stew.”

It’s 6 p.m. and upstairs the neighbors are in out of the cold, filling up the parish hall, pulling up seats at their regular tables. Downstairs, Fran corrals some muscle, nabbing a few men who’d been pondering a leaky pipe in the ceiling to begin hauling the pots of chicken soup upstairs to a makeshift serving station. “OK, I’m off to the races,” says one, slipping on potholders and swinging the first pot off the stove.

“Can I get all my volunteers in a line?” Jori calls out to the group, which by now includes a half-dozen more adults and several little kids, one of whom earnestly holds up his plastic-gloved paws for inspection.

“OK,” says Jori. “ We want to make sure we get the salad and the bread on every table first. Then, we have a soup station up there where we’re dishing the soup out into bowls on trays.  You want to make sure every neighbor gets a big, hearty bowl of soup.”

They grab their bowls and head up the stairs to the parish hall, where Fran is wrapping up a blessing.

“Gracious God, we give you thanks for this community we have gathered here, and for this food we are about to share. Let us pray.”

And then, they’re off – in a whirlwind of service and slurping. Wendy Vasquez joked later that she’s always wanted to do a stop-motion film of a Tuesday night meal. Once the doors open, she says, it’s like a ball rolling down a hill – all you can do is stay out of the way. Aproned servers — even the smallest ones — deliver bowls of salad, bread, soup, and dessert to tables in a flurry of surprising efficiency, leaning down to answer questions about the food and field requests for seconds.

“You did good, chef,” says a server to Fran, as she slips past.

The crowd is diverse: some older, some younger; some black, some white, some Asian. Some women, more men. The vast majority of neighbors in attendance are just that — neighbors living within the 12 blocks surrounding the church at the corner of Hermitage and Wilson. Eighty percent are elderly, living on a fixed income, members of the “working poor,” or families living in the neighborhood. Twenty percent are homeless and living on the street.

In the northwest corner of the room, John and Jim sit with 7 others at table 14 – their regular spot. Jim’s older, with a craggy face, gray hair and burly hands. He’s been coming to Tuesday dinners for 6 months or so, he says. He found out about them through the American Indian Center down the street. I ask him what he thinks of the soup.

It’s good, he says – it’s “Jewish penicillin,” and then adds, “Me gusta la sopa!” He’s studying Spanish, he says.

John, on his right, is a lot younger. He’s wearing a South Park T-shirt and has his hair combed back straight from his forehead. He used to work as a security guard for the CTA, he says, but he got fired in March and has been out of work ever since.  His unemployment claim was denied, but his family’s helping out so he can keep his apartment down the street while he looks for another security job, or something in retail. Or food service. Or, really, anything.

He found out about the Tuesday meals the same way the investment banker did: He saw the line.

“This is a great service to have for people who are low and out, and need some assistance,” he says, carefully. “It really does help them out. I have a place to live but some people here they’re living in the road, or at a shelter. So every single Tuesday this is somewhere for them to go, something stable.”

[Ed. note: I’m in the process of researching *other people’s soup projects* as possible material for a new cookbook, and am hoping to post occasional long pieces like this as I get the chance. RCS is the Soup & Bread beneficiary this coming week.]