February: it’s officially mid winter. The holidays are long behind us and after the austerity measures we take on in January have ended, we are looking for some gratification. We typically find it in hosting an elaborate dinner party, but somehow I just wasn’t feeling it this year. I wanted to be social, but we didn’t want to re-tox so hard with our usual Austrian feast. There are so many people that we don’t get to see on a regular basis and I was thinking an open house was in order. Something along the lines of our Summer Picnics, but indoors.
As it happened, I was scrolling through Facebook when I noticed that the sister of a good friend was hosting a soup party. Everyone was to bring their best soup to her place for an informal afternoon of soup tasting that would double as a benefit for a local food shelter. What a perfect idea for a mid-winter gathering—soup for everyone!
Normally, I am not a huge fan of potlucks. Maybe it’s because I am a control freak, or maybe it’s because I don’t find the cacophony of unlike foods together on a plate appetizing. But a soup potluck had some appeal, keeping everything in the same food family.
I contacted City Harvest, a local food rescue organization that helps feed over 1 million New Yorkers each year, and found that they make it very easy to set up a food drive. Their website is full of helpful information, and if we were to collect just 100 lbs. of food, they would come pick it up.
Since our apartment would max out at 14 people, we decided to hold the party in our building’s common room and just invite everyone we knew, as we did with the picnics. We asked everyone to bring a soup or soup-related food and some non-perishables. Soup was on.
I had a few objectives in setting up this event. I wanted it to be informal and fun. I also wanted to see if we could pull off a large event on a limited budget and without using disposable tableware. We decided to use every single cup and bowl we owned and arranged them as centerpieces that people could dismantle and use. Instead of buying flowers, I made decorations by filling up glass cylinders with beans and grains and topping them with the airplants that hang around our apartment. We also went out on a limb and asked people to bring their own bowls. Some did. Others thought that was weird. To be safe, we bought a few compostable cups, plates and bowls for back up.
With the cups, bowls and plates taken care of, I just needed to come up with a solution for napkins, and I found the answer later that week when my friend, Olga, hosted our monthly stitch-n-bitch. She was using these beautiful cloth napkins that came on a tear-away roll. Made by a Spanish company called MyDrap, the cotton napkins come in a rainbow of colors and can be re-used five or six times before eventually being composted.
In keeping with our budget-conscious theme, we decided to make an array of soups using up the food we had on hand. Our winter CSA had just delivered a large box of root vegetables for which we had no storage, so my husband made a series of pureéd soups that we served in glass jars:
From Left to Right:
We set up our room and set out our array of soups, enough to serve 20, maybe, and hoped for the best. After a slow start with only a couple friends showing up on the early side, a steady flow of people began to arrive bearing soups and various accoutrements. There was spicy butternut squash, Moroccan Harira (a chickpea soup), Thai Coconut, Red Lentil Stews, three kinds of Matzo Ball (each different, one vegetarian, and all delicious), Hungarian Mushroom, Dal Makhani, and German Cabbage Stew, among many others. (Re-heating the soups proved a challenge, requiring multiple trips nine floors up to our apartment since the catering kitchen in the multipurpose room didn’t have a stove. Eventually, we resorted to using the catering kitchen’s microwave.)
There was an uncanny balance between the folks who brought soup and those who brought bread. I had made three loaves of No-Knead Bread (a bread so easy it is almost an insult to bakers), but that wasn’t really necessary. People brought delicious breads of all kinds: sourdough baguettes, German brötchen, Miche, slices of rye, rustic boules, cheesy breadsticks and even a tray full of delicious Bulgarian Banitsa, made with cheese and phyllo. We weren’t prepared for the array of croutons people brought, from homemade mushroom-herb and spicy Cajun numbers to Israeli mini croutons. And then there was dessert, delicious iced root beer cookies and Hungarian Kurtoskalacs, giant hollow cylinders made of pastry.
Our first soup party was an unqualified success. The room was hopping with friends from all parts of our lives, and we seemed to be outnumbered by children who were racing in and out. We tried more than a dozen delicious soups. We collected almost 300 lbs. of non-perishable foods for City Harvest. And by the end of the evening, we had established a new mid-winter tradition we look forward to resuming next year.