WABAN — It’s a chilly, dark Sunday evening, and Virginia Drachman and Douglas Jones are expecting close to 30 friends for dinner at their home here.
The Drachman-Joneses are hosting a soup swap. They’ve asked me to join them — Ginny is my husband’s cousin — and introduce the concept to a group of their friends and neighbors. My latest cookbook, “Soup Swap,” is dedicated to the idea of entertaining and building community through sharing pots of soup. It’s a healthier, post-resolution counterpart to the holiday cookie swap.
Everything is set up for a party — bowls, plates, forks, and spoons are laid out, and the wine is chilling. But there are no smells coming from the kitchen — not even the sounds of cooking.
Soon the guests arrive, bearing pots of soup they have made at home, and the room begins to fill with the scents of tomatoes, lentils, curry, cumin, and chicken. Others arrive with loaves of crusty bread and seasonal salads.
For me, it all started several years ago when my neighbor Hope Murphy called. “Let’s start a soup swap,” she proposed. “We’ll meet once a month during the winter. The host will provide bread, salad, and dessert, and everyone will bring a pot of their favorite soup. We’ll have a party, and then at the end of the night we each go home with six or eight different types of homemade soup instead of being stuck with the same old pot of soup all week.” I hesitated, but then I did the math: I cook one pot of soup and go home with six or eight kinds of soup. I was in.
A tradition was born. The Second Sunday Soup Swap Suppers are still going strong in our small Maine town after six winters. The soups have improved dramatically over the years. The first winter there were a lot of purees and old favorites like chicken noodle, but more recently we have shared Thai red curry noodle soup, roasted winter-vegetable soup, and short rib ramen, as well as chowders and bisques.
Along the way we have developed rituals. One of the members of the soup swap group is a cartoonist. Each month he brings an original, uncaptioned cartoon (much like the last page of the The New Yorker) and we spend part of the evening writing down possible captions. Our soup-filled evenings always end with the reading of the captions — and much laughter.
Another ritual we established early on was to tell a short story about our soups and why we chose to make them.
In Ginny and Doug’s kitchen, while the soups simmer, we form a circle, introduce ourselves, and say a few words about our soups. Soup almost always comes with a story.
A cold spinach soup, cooked by a neighbor, is inspired by a visit to the Blandfield Plantation, an 18th-century plantation house in Virginia, where she first tasted the soup in the grand foyer served in ice-cold Jefferson cups.
A young woman tells the group that the pasta e fagioli (Italian pasta and bean soup) she brought is her children’s all-time favorite.
There is also a healthy coconut-curry soup with squash and chickpeas, as well as a warming lentil soup with tomatoes and cumin; a bright green pea soup topped with pancetta, creme fraiche, and scallions; a tomato-corn-basil soup; and a squash and pumpkin soup garnished with roasted spiced pecans and blue cheese.
Everyone fills small bowls, mugs, and ramekins with a sampling of the soups, trying to taste a little bit of everything and congratulating friends on their good soup-cooking skills.
This is the spirit of a soup swap.
I have spent the past few months touring the Northeast, hosting events like this at cooking schools, book clubs, homes, churches, and synagogues. Soup swaps can happen virtually anywhere, and with almost any number of guests. And what I hear from almost everyone is that somehow, inexplicably, sharing soup brings people together.
The six couples in my original soup-swap group knew one another only slightly (we were all food lovers and friends of Hope’s), but within one or two Sundays a feeling of camaraderie and closeness emerged. Six years later, after sharing many pots of soup and telling many stories, our cold, dark Sunday nights together have become a cherished time.
Why does soup bring people together and create a feeling of community?
I have several theories. Soup is healing. Think of the food you turn to when you, or your child or a friend, is sick. It’s the ultimate comfort food, the dish you seek out year after year — to lift spirits or clear a cold.
In my recent travels talking about soup, I always ask the group: What’s your soup story? Mine begins with Campbell’s tomato, the defining soup of my childhood. But I am always amazed at how often other people’s stories include the words “grandmother” and “mother.” One woman told me about a mushroom soup her Hungarian grandmother made for her as a young girl. And then she explained that her mother lived in France during the war, and when times were hard and mushrooms were scarce, she would add a touch of chestnut puree to the soup. That became her family tradition: mushroom-chestnut soup.
Others talk about their grandmother’s fluffy matzo ball soup or their mother’s rich pea and ham soup. And there are always stories about great soups people have tasted while traveling — their first taste of cheese-topped onion soup in Paris, kale and chorizo soup in Portugal, sopa de lima (chicken and lime soup) in Oaxaca, Mexico, or a rich, noodle-filled pho sipped in an outdoor market stall in Ho Chi Minh City.
As the salad and breads are cleared to make way for dessert, guests at the Drachman-Joneses’ soup swap take out Mason jars and yogurt containers and fill them with leftover soup. “This is like a holiday cookie swap,” says one woman, “only way healthier and a whole lot more fun.” Exactly.
Another woman, the mother of two, packs up her soup leftovers in a big tote bag. “I had the best time tonight,” she says, thanking the host and hostess. “And I won’t have to cook a thing all week. My family is going to feast on soup!”
Ginny Drachman laughs and sums up the evening this way: “This is my kind of entertaining. I didn’t have to cook a thing!”