Liquid Love

by Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Jote Khalsa

It’s the parched and muggy end of August in Austin—mid- to upper-90s most days (not counting the heat index)—and this day is just like the rest of them. While the A/C struggles to keep its cool, it’s hard not to be worried about the turnout for what most would say is an unseasonable gathering: a soup swap. Mmmmmm…steaming hot soup in August?

But sure enough, the faithful enter one by one, laden with boxes or coolers full of quart-size mason jars of soup, bottles of wine and beer, loads of crackers and cheese, chocolates, dips and spreads and more hugs and joviality than one could ever think possible on a molten Saturday afternoon. Ah, the soup swappers have arrived. And they are really excited about their soup.

Soup-swapping has become a ritual in the lives of these women, who talk, make and swap soup any chance they get—going on a few years now. And they don’t need an official event either; on any given month they’ll make soup and swap it with each other so that for a few days afterward, they can get that Christmas morning feeling every time they open their refrigerator doors.

This group didn’t come up with the concept. This version of soup exchanges started around 1999, when Knox Gardner—a usability expert in Seattle—was in the midst of a long, dark winter in the Pacific Northwest and got the idea to share his warming soups with friends, and vice versa. Over time, Gardner worked out a system for swapping, and eventually, in 2005, after the concept spread to Boston, New York, California and elsewhere, National Soup Swap Day was born. It’s observed the third Saturday of January (generally regarded as National Soup Month), and the “holiday” has gained wide national, and even international, attention. “Every year, there are a few soup swap locations around the world,” Gardner says. “My favorite is those folks in Australia who find out about it and then email me confused as it’s the middle of their summer. But as we say: ‘Swap when you can!’ So if June is the most compelling time to swap soup, do that.”

soup1Indeed, swappers here in Austin give no heed to season when it comes to soup. “We are hard-core,” says Amy, a devoted swapper. For her and many in the group, the joy comes every bit as much from making the soup (six quarts divided into separate quart-size containers) as it does from the bounty taken home in the end. Before she pulls her precious cargo up the street in a wagon on the day of the swap, Amy posts on Facebook: “Patty Griffin Pandora station and the sound of my soup jar lids pinging in the background as they seal…bliss!”

And now “The Telling of the Soup” is about to begin. It’s one of the central and most-loved aspects of Gardner’s soup-swap methodology, and goes like this: Each swapper picks a number out of a hat, which is the order in which they will tell the story of their soup, its ingredients and whether it has a special significance in their life or any other reason they chose to make it. Then, when everyone has taken their turn “telling,” the swapping begins (in the same numbered order) and one by one, each chooses one quart of soup until they’re all gone.

Gardner says that this part of the swap can get competitive. “Our Seattle group is pretty fierce. Last year, I butchered our own chickens for a clean consommé, for example,” he says. “Still, a good story can sell a soup more than fancy ingredients. The first time someone brought crackers to go with their soup, I thought I would faint! But now people are so tricky in trying to get people to pick their soups.”

Today, “The Telling of the Soup” is both heartwarming and trash-talky, but it’s all in good fun—these women know each other well. Susan shares that her sopa verde de elote is green because she sautéed zucchini in a %#&$-ton of butter…and then onion and garlic—loads of that. “Oh, sorry,” she suddenly says to fellow swapper Jodi, who has a sensitivity to onions. “I thought about the onions and your gastric distress on the way over.” She continues with: “Then there’s lots and lots of corn, green peas…and then FOR MARCELA, a Hatch green chile.” (Marcela is known for her aversion to Hatch chiles). “But it’s not spicy. It just adds a little: Huh, I wonder what makes this soup so good?” She then presents her soup’s garnish: roasted pepitas artfully presented in little reusable tea bags.

Clearly, these swappers know their soup, and they know what sells it. “I made this one because Asa loves it,” says swapper Jote. (Asa is Susan-of-the-verde de elote’s 6-year-old daughter.) “It’s my mom’s ‘fakie’ chicken noodle soup that she started making back when Whole Foods was Safer Way. It’s the one I grew up eating, and the one my kids grew up eating and the one your kids grew up eating.” A reverent hush descends over the otherwise raucous gathering—but not for long. Marcela, who’s a regular at these events—but whose husband Eric is always the one who actually makes her soups—jokes as she holds aloft a quart of Eric’s spicy carrot coconut soup: “There may, or may not have been, special favors involved in the creation of this soup.” Kayci, who brought corn chowder with individual, hollowed-out bread bowls, explains, much to everyone’s amusement, that her soup contains “happy butter” (meaning, from cows treated humanely and pasture-raised), “happy cheese” and “happy half-and-half.” “Half-happy, half-sad?” quips Kim, who later has a dark confession to make when it’s her turn to talk about her mushroom leek white wine bisque: “Two things that terrified me about this soup are that it has NO veggie stock—you use water…water! And NO GARLIC. The way this recipe goes is that you make the broth from the mushroom stems, and then you slice the caps. And I was intrigued, but I thought, This is never gonna work. But it is SO GOOD.”

soup2And speaking of so good, Kathie sells her soup with a profane kind of passion. “I made portabella cauliflower soup, and I have to say…it’s ugly, and I didn’t put a beautiful fabric topper on the jar, and there’s no treat to entice.” But then she goes on to say that it’s the best %#&$ing soup she’s made in her %#&$ing life…and she’s not even kidding you. It turns out everyone believes her, and her soup is snatched up with record speed. While this particular group only swaps vegetarian soups to accommodate everyone’s eating preferences, today there’s a rogue element. “Well, I’m the only one who brought bacon to a vegetarian soup swap,” Raini admits when it’s her turn—referring to her bags of bacon bits as garnish for her okra tomato hominy zucchini soup. “My intention was to get everything from the farmers market this morning, but I decided to sleep late because I drank too much wine last night,” she continues. As a counterpoint, Anne says of her summer squash soup, “The squash came from the farmers market this morning. It’s a really simple soup with yogurt and onions, and it calls for hot sauce, but all I had was Scotch bonnet [peppers], so I tried to take it easy for the kids.”

When the swapping concludes, everyone packs away multiple quarts of soup to be taken home and savored. But the group continues chatting, snacking and holding the youngest member of the party: wee Baby Hank—barely a month old—who happily sleeps in various arms during the revelry. During this swap, his family is the recipient of donated quarts of soup to line their freezer as little gifts to be consumed when sleep deprivation and constant baby-tending make finding nourishment a chore. According to Gardner, these tiny—and sometimes, really big—ways of giving back to the community are common among swappers. There’s a group in Indianapolis, for example, who puts on enormous soup swaps for a food bank, and a group in Jersey City who holds theirs in a church to raise funds for an AIDS hospice.

Soup-swapping offers endless opportunities to stir a little more goodness into the world. It’s also a party with a purpose, a practical way to share a big vat of homemade love while making or deepening connections. “Cooking is usually something I do alone, feeding people—children—who sometimes appreciate it, but more often, don’t,” says Jodi-of-the-onion-sensitivity. “The soup swap lets us celebrate our cooking. It’s a party while we’re together, and then the party continues. I ate Carly’s soup for lunch today and it was like a midday friend-hug.”

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For tips on how to throw a soup swap party, visit soupswap.com.