Pots That Simmer Strangers Into Friends Like Soup from a Stone

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I arrived in Brooklyn in February 2000, after a two-year stint in Paris, where everyone is supposed to be rude and no one expects much better. I’m not sure what I imagined New York would be like, but that whole year I was surprised by how hard it was to connect with people, even when we shared the same mother tongue. Just as in Paris, there was no one smiling on the subway, no inkling of acknowledgment when someone brushed past you on the sidewalk. And I’ve never been very good at winter, especially the cold doldrums between the holidays and any sign of spring.

So the following February I started an annual tradition called Soup Kitchen as a kind of survival mechanism. Once a week I cooked an enormous pot of soup, baked bread and invited over everyone I could think of—including many people who were practically strangers. It was, I hoped, a nonthreatening and nonhumiliating way of turning acquaintances into friends: Sunday night, low-key, without the rigmarole of a big dinner party and more keyed into community than cocktails. You could bring friends or show up alone, with something to offer or empty handed. It was a way of reaching out to all the people whose stories I wanted to hear, and an attempt to connect with people I saw often but didn’t really know (a regular at my local coffee shop that I was fond of, the guy who worked the desk at the library where I did a lot of my work). There were times when there were three people (who all took home a lot of soup) and times when we were 50.

Almost a decade later, I’m surrounded by many people I love, and Sunday soup remains a way of bringing friends together, and of catching up with those I’d somehow lost track of (former college-mates or colleagues I’d all but forgotten about until running into them on the subway). Near-strangers are still an ingredient, as guests are encouraged to bring along people they wish they knew. Two years ago was the year of the emissary, when I asked friends from far away to send over their favorite New Yorkers.

Last year, Soup Kitchen became a collective effort. Feeling overwhelmed by an imminent cross-country move, I was ready to call it off. There was protest (“But how else am I going to ask out my former student without feeling like a complete idiot?” etc.), and friends rallied, elbow deep in tiny kitchens, chopping heroic amounts of vegetables, hauling soup for 40 in the back of a cab.

This February I’ll be in California, where citrus instead of snow will hang from the trees. Soup Kitchen is one of the few things I’ll miss.

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