Swapping soup, surviving dinner

If you’ve been trying to cook more meals at home, you may have noticed improvements in your budget, your waistline, and your family together time. But unless you have a Cordon Bleu diploma tacked up on the wall in the family room, you might be encountering a downside to all this cooking—boredom with that same-old rotation of dishes and recipes. Here’s a way to get variety back into your repertoire, and have fun with your friends as a bonus.

A soup swap sounds simple, but it makes people so happy, perhaps because there is something about the nature of soup-making that elevates the experience to a higher level. A salad swap wouldn’t work for reasons that are both practical and more intangible. You can’t lose a salad in the back of the freezer and find it six months later to enjoy like a belated gift, just received from a good friend. Here’s how to get started.

A month before

Invite people. You’ll want to plan in advance so that there are a few weekends before the event. Be sure to let everyone know that they will need to bring six quarts of frozen, labeled soup.

Set a guest limit. Take a look at the space where you’ll be hosting the gathering and decide how many people you can comfortably accommodate (remember that every swapper will arrive with a big bag of six frozen soups). Try to have at least 12 swappers, so there’s enough variety, but probably no more than about 25, because of the time required to complete the swap.

Week before

Send a reminder. The weekend before the swap, send out a quick reminder to your guests and review instructions.

Make, freeze, and label your own soup. Six quarts is usually at least two batches, so get out a couple pots and start cooking. There’s no need to buy expensive containers; Ziploc bags frozen flat work great. You can make any type of soup—as healthy or decadent as you desire. Try an old favorite or branch out with something you’ve always wanted to try. And be sure to make a little bit extra for your family. At one recent swap in my home, a woman picked the soup she’d brought, because she hadn’t made enough to allow for more than a small taste, and her family demanded more.

The actual soup preparation can be the best part of the swap. There’s an in-the-moment quality surrounding the time it takes to prepare soup, and deep comfort in knowing it will be shared with someone else. With all the chopping, stock-making and simmering, it’s a labor-intensive process. But that allows time to quietly observe what’s happening on the stove, and to think of someone who could really use a nice, warm bowl of soup. This labor, with its attendant memories and feelings of connectedness, translates into “I love you” for most of us, even the ones who can barely rustle up a can of Progresso on a chilly night.

Night of the swap

Write it down. As guests arrive, write their name and the name of their soup on a big piece of paper (I call it the “Wall of Soup”). Have name badges on hand and put their name and name of their soup (this helps to spark conversation among shy guests).

Feed everyone. Have snacks and drinks on hand, or offer a big pot of soup to get everyone in the mood.

Pick a number. Write out numbers on scrap paper, one for every swapper, and have them draw numbers at random. Ask each swapper to write their number on the Wall of Soup, by their name (this helps to track them down later if they’ve wandered into the kitchen for another glass of wine when it’s their turn to choose).

Telling of the soup. The person who picked number one tells first, then number two, and so on. This is a chance to offer a minute or two of fun facts about the soup—ingredients, history, health benefits, or even the sad story of how it would have turned out better if only there had been some turmeric in the pantry. The telling of the soup is always a memorable part of the evening, because it offers a chance for friends to share their creativity, their history, and their special stories.

Pick soups. Keep it fair by going in forward and reverse order, Fantasy Football style. Start with the person who has number one, and when you get to the end of your swappers, go backward for round two. On round three, go forward again, until you reach the end of six rounds, at which point everyone will have six brand-new soups to take home. To help keep track of what’s available, cross soups off the Wall of Soup once they’ve all been picked.

Spice it up

Give back: During one swap, I had a friend who had just started a course of chemotherapy treatment, so I offered a “bring a seventh quart” option when I sent out the invitations. Thanks to the generosity of my guests, I was able to deliver 20 quarts of soup to my ailing friend and her family. Another “give back” idea is to have everyone bring canned goods for the food shelf.

Offer prizes: Have your kids serve as judges if you want to get them involved. Awards can be for categories such as first soup picked, first to run out, most exotic ingredients, best recipe name, or best “telling of the soup.” Give old cookbooks (a cheap find at garage sales) or other cooking-related items as prizes.

Collect recipes: Ask everyone to email their recipes to you, and create a virtual cookbook for the group.

Be flexible

I’ve had guests show up one week before the scheduled event, soup in hand and ready to swap. Guests who’ve had awful weeks at work have arrived with six quarts of Byerly’s finest, or no soup at all, but eager to observe the fun. One person who hadn’t quite understood the directions arrived at a swap with a giant pot of steaming soup she’d whipped up that afternoon. Whatever happens, remember that the purpose of the swap is to share creativity and nourishing food, and nothing else matters.

At the swaps I’ve hosted over the years, we’ve seen dramatic recitations, original poems, heartfelt reminiscences of the beloved grandma who passed along the recipe, and re-enactments of marriage proposals that were delivered during the soup course. Friendships have been formed and a sense of community has been created. From such a simple notion—sharing some soup—a truly great tradition (and a lovely course of family meals) can be born.


Seattle resident Knox Gardner is credited with launching a National Soup Swap event six years ago. Visit soupswap.com or “Soup Swap” on Facebook.

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