COAST CHRONICLES:  It was a dark and stormy night, and time for soup!

Soup Night

“The leaves are turning glorious colors, the air has a little bit of bite to it, and where I live the rains have started. It’s time for soup.” So starts one section of the new book by author, gardener, Portlander and part-time Peninsulite Maggie Stuckey. “Soup Night: Recipes for Creating Community Around a Pot of Soup,” (Storey Publishing, $19.95) is 304 pages of warm wonder, good eats and community development.

Stuckey witnessed the transformative magic of soup one evening while visiting her brother. “I was invited to a soup night in Portland, actually an event that takes place on the block where my brother and his family lives.”

“That first evening I just watched how everybody behaved,” she continued, “how delighted they all were to see everybody else. And the talk — who’s been sick; who’s thinking about changing jobs; how the kids are; who’s relatives are coming into town — all this backyard stuff that used to happen but doesn’t any more.”

“I was able to have a pretty deep conversatiosn about why they organized a soup group and why they keep going and what it means to them.” Stuckey is a writer so she’s naturally curious when she feels her finger on the pulse of something new. And the soup group got her wondering if there might be others in the country. Sure enough, once she dug into the research, she found that similar groups gathering around food have begun all over the nation. The idea for the book took shape.

No fences make

better neighbors

And here we have to disagree with the eminent American poet Robert Frost — as it turns out no fences make better neighbors. What Stuckey discovered is that what drew folks together, aside from the food — in fact the soup was just the vehicle for the gathering, not the main event — was the feeling of community that people craved.

“The folks in my brother’s soup group are so proud of what they have accomplished and how important the gathering is to everyone. I should say there are fairly significant demographic differences among the people in the group but they sit down and have a simple meal together once a month. They help each other out and have fun together. Especially apparent is how much everybody cherishes all the children. The kids kind of belong to every one.”

As Stuckey delved into her topic she realized that one of the geographic features of many of the soup group neighborhoods was this — no privacy fences. She noted that many of the homes had front yards open to the sidewalks, with nothing that walls off one house from another.

I can attest to this myself, on both sides of the issue. One day while visiting friends in the Chautauqua Boulevard neighborhood of North Portland, I set up a bunny fence and put my lop-eared rex rabbit Mimo outside to get a little fresh air. As neighbors started arriving home from work, they noticed this unusual addition to the front yard and started gathering around the bunny cage. Soon we had kids inside the cage with the bunny, parents catching up with each other, chatting about jobs, street news, politics, food — it was just as Stuckey experienced on soup night.

It doesn’t take much to encourage a neighborhood to get together — as social creatures we need each other. But we seem to have forgotten that simple circumstances, like making and serving soup, or the visual connectedness of one yard to another, can provide opportunities for social gatherings. (My neighbors in Nahcotta have just put up a tall wood fence on the entire perimeter of their property. Now we won’t even be able to talk over the fence as we’re gardening.)

Soup’s on

Because soup-night features, yes, soup, Stuckey’s community development book is disguised as a cookbook. There are tips for making soup stock, suggestions about what to have on hand to make or extend soup, and many fabulous soup recipes with vegetarian and meat versions of the same soup. “Soup is the essence of the book,” she says, “I spoke to soup groups all over and I invited all those people to send me their favorite recipes. So these came from all around the country and they represent different regional tastes and cooking styles.”

You’ll find cream of anything green soup, sweet potato soup, red beans and rice soup, red pozole, sweet corn chowder and Havana banana black bean soup among others. The fun part for us is that so many of our own neighbors have recipes included. In fact, the Peninsula has the largest group of cooks represented.

Nancy Allen contributed her dynamite crab cakes (I have experienced these first hand and can tell you that this recipe alone is worth the price of the book!); David Campiche, Mussel Chowder; Sydney Stevens, South Western Lentil Soup; Kennette Osborn, Surprise Beef Stew; Dennis Bettles, Roasted Onion Soup; and Patty and Bruce Wood, Mock Cream of Tomato Soup and Asian Noodle Salad.

The book also includes practical administrative details about starting and sustaining a soup night. Basically, a standard day of the month and time is set; the host makes a veggie and a regular version of soup; no RSVPs are required — making it easier for people to come; host duties rotate; and attendees pitch in for clean-up and bring side dishes like bread or salads and sometimes even their own soup bowls.

How to get started

Who to invite depends on the goals of the neighborhood. “My brother’s group was set up deliberately and consciously to get neighbors to know each other,” says Stuckey. “But a lot of people cast a wide net. They might talk to someone interesting in the super market and hand them an invitation.” For some, it’s just a matter of having a great time with interesting people. One participant says, “If you don’t laugh until your sides hurt, it wasn’t a good [soup] night.” Stuckey calls her brother’s soup group Stanton Street Soup Group, a pseudo name to protect their privacy. “Everyone wants to live on this street. People go door to door trying to find someone who’s thinking of selling.”

Now here’s the great part: Stuckey and our very own Peninsula soup-chefs are gathering at Adelaide’s Books in Ocean Park on Friday, Nov. 1, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and at Time Enough Books in Ilwaco on Saturday, Nov. 2, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.  Soups will be served and Maggie will be there with books to be signed and personalized.

Overall it’s a simple, powerful idea captured in a stunningly beautiful book. Maggie says she doesn’t know of any soup groups on the Peninsula yet, but “by this time next year I really hope there will be several.”

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