Imagine a game of chicken that takes place in the kitchen, not on the highway. One that requires a few quarts of broth rather than a full tank of gas. And one that leaves no skid marks, but often stocks the refrigerator with a week’s worth of dinners.
Skeptics call it “that soup supper,” “your soup kitchen,” or “madness.”
I call it “Soup Feed.”
Once a month, I open my doors to about two dozen friends and acquaintances, promising soup, bread, soda pop, and cookies. I do this, with my mate’s unflagging support, because it has been a struggle in the past few years (with a career in the offing in a new town) to spend time with the people I say “hi” to every day.
But why a soup feed, you may ask, and not a potluck, wingfest, or Thai cracker buffet?
About potlucks: Why make eating a game of roulette? Non-cooks bring chips and dip from the grocery store (or from a posh deli, if they are impulsive and carry credit cards). Enthusiastic cooks make beautiful dishes, but seem always to bring so much that leftovers end up colonizing the refrigerator. For both groups, potlucks are a hassle rather than an opportunity, thus making it less likely they will accept the invitation to go out in the first place.
As for other exotic possibilities, they are too much work, too hard to keep casual, and too costly to sustain on a monthly basis. A good Thursday evening is relaxed. Friends should be able to decide after the evening news that, yes, they’d like a bowl of soup at Joan’s house, after all. Grab keys. Smack lips. Presto. Soup!
I can’t be flexible with my invitations if I have to sweat a certain number of eggplant slices by 6 p.m. It’s the rare, serene kitchen goddess who remains cheery when someone reneges at the last minute after she has slaved over a tower of spring rolls, each filled and tucked just so. And I am not her.
Soup is the resentment-free option. No need to pay attention to portions. I can make four gallons of soup and three or four loaves of bread, pick up the rest of the supplies the day of, and call it good. If I seem to be running short of a soup, I whip out some broth and top the pot. Soup-feeders often bring wine and beer. All of which results in a monthly party the meanest penny-pincher can sign on to.
And I like making soup. I like the forgiving nature of a deep pot. Soup too spicy? Add cream. Too bland? Where are the red pepper flakes? I like the topsy-turvy friendliness of carrot, onion, and rutabaga bobbing in broth a-boil. I even like ladles (I own three) for their graceful necks and the way they refuse to sit primly in my shallow drawer.
In the past three months, we have supped on a Hungarian mushroom soup and Cooking Light magazine’s Turkey Vatapa (a Brazilian stew). We’ve also sampled an adaptation from Elephants Delicatessen in Portland, Oregon — where my mother has worked for 24 years — of their classic Tomato-Orange Soup. Each has enveloped the kitchen in a warm spicy haze.
Because time is often short, I do some basic planning each month. Here’s how I have worked out the space-time-matter problem.
Weekend before: I make the soups (one vegetarian and one meaty) and breads, often incorporating fresh produce (this year’s outrageous tomato harvest) with store-bought items like broth and poultry. While I chop vegetables, dough shimmies in the bread machine. Using the “dough” cycle, I make flat round loaves to be baked on pizza pans slick with olive oil. I freeze the soup and bread in gallon bags labeled “PARTY CHX!” and “WHEAT.”
Day of: Two hours before guests arrive, I thaw and warm everything. One soup goes on the stove and the other in a crock pot. Breads warm briefly in the oven. I allow an hour to lay out bowls and spoons and otherwise ready the house.
When guests arrive, there’s nothing to do but point them kitchenward. No timing courses or forcing the polite first-served to watch their food grow cold. Best of all, I get to hang out rather than race from door to kitchen to table. I even get to sample my own wares, a full glass of wine in my not-so-sweaty palm.
With three soup feeds under my belt, I am happy to report that each has been better than the last. I plan to carry on until June at least, when the weather will grow too warm for consommés and turtlenecks.
I enjoy the afterglow of a good game of chicken soup. The world sparkles just a bit more brightly when you have survived a near-collision between the ladle and the clock.
Joan Menefee teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, in Menomonie.
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