When "Soup's On," a Neighborhood Gathers

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Friday, April 5, 2013

I would generally make one soup, someone would bring at least one other, and the rest would chime in with salad, bread and dessert.

On moving here, going on two years ago, I've thought about hosting something similar. But, truth to tell, it's taken us that long to acquire enough friends. And winter here is mostly sunny and warm, by Midwest standards.

Recently, however, I discovered that soup parties aren't necessarily subject to old friends and weather.

As we pulled up to Sara and Greg Robb's house on Boyd Avenue, we saw two groups walking, bowls and spoons in hand.

No, they weren't looking for a hand-out. They, like us, were headed to the block's monthly Soup Night, initiated by long-time resident Deborah Putnam, aided and abetted by her down-the-street friend, Sara Robb.

As we all filed into the Robbs' cozy home, we found a group already gathered around the dining room table, filled by a potpourri of side dishes - with desserts on a nearby buffet.

Putnam doesn't remember exactly how many years ago Soup Night began. Sara thinks it was seven or eight. "I saw an article in Sunset Magazine about how a woman new to her neighborhood came up with a soup party to meet her neighbors," Putnam says. "I copied her idea."

She started with two soups and 10 homes. It grew to encompass the rest of the block, occasionally taking in a stray from a neighboring street, house guests or visiting relatives.

"We're interlopers," acknowledges Jane Courant. She and husband Michael Gliksohn have been coming for a few months although they live a block away. "We've met so many nice people."

"It's wonderful, delicious and neat to know people in the neighborhood," Gliksohn says.

"I'm a Hudson address, but they let us in," says Annie Goglia. "It's really nice to have a sense of community."

"The organizing plan is two soups and bring stuff," Greg Robb offered. "Stuff" is salads, breads, side dishes, desserts, drinks. "Sometimes there's a theme Ð like Indian or Mexican."

"We never know how many are coming," Sara says. And since no foods are assigned, it can be heavy on one thing or another. "But no one ever goes home hungry." This night, no theme. To sample the soups, we headed to the kitchen where two big pots simmered on the stove. Labels identified them as 'Pozole' (a Mexican pork and hominy stew) served with sour cream and chopped onion, and 'Curried Lentil.' One soup is always vegetarian.

Gary Sponholtz, a three-year resident, says he relishes both the home-cooking and interaction with his neighbors.

"By this kind of connection, we get to talk about issues like honey mushrooms (the Armillaria fungus that invades trees and shrubs), offer gardening tips and exchange seeds," Sponholtz says. "We bring embellishments and good California wines. We're foodies and wineys."

Margaret Garms signs up each month's host and e-mails everyone the information. "I lean on people a little bit if I need volunteers. Everyone has almost the same house, so no one's embarrassed."

(Indeed, last July a block party celebrating the 100th anniversary of many of the block's Craftsman bungalows took the place of the usual soup affair.)

"Our conversations range from talking about our families - kids and grandkids - to politics, to the neighborhood, to how we're renovating our homes, to vacations we're taking or have taken," Sara says. "And that's just a few of the topics."

"It's a real community builder," says Roger Howland, who attended with his wife Lisa, daughters, Emily, 20 .and Madeleine, 16, and Madeleine's boyfriend. "Whenever we can make it, we're here," he says.

But all the news exchanged at this month's event wasn't pleasant. Kevin Kuo, a senior at California College of the Arts, detailed how he had been mugged a couple of weeks ago, walking home from an evening class. He had already put out an e-mail so everyone would be extra-cautious. He now rides his bike to evening classes.

As the youngest person attending on his own, Kuo is grateful for the Soup Nights as "a place people can gather. We need more community," he says.

I counted 20 people this night. Sara says they vary between 20 and 40. Indeed, founder Putnam and husband Bob Hale were out of town. "We're missing an anthropologist, our geologist and our art professor," Howland tells me. "It's a cast of characters. It's a lot of fun."

"We've all gotten much closer through this," Sara says. "I just hate it when I miss. We all feel much more of a sense of community warmth, friendliness, safety and support. It's a way for neighbors to become friends."

Judy Berne welcomes your comments and column ideas. You can reach her at judyberne@att.net.