Pittsburgh communities come together over bubbling pots of soup
Once every winter, the Neely family opens its doors to hundreds of friends, neighbors and even a few strangers.
They fill the rooms of their Regent Square home with chatter, laughter and joy — all while filling their bellies with the delicious dish that's brought them all together: soup. Called the Big Soup Party, the event has served as a means for the Neelys to unite the community, support a charity and offer up their favorite savory and sweet creations.
“Back then, no one really had parties,” says Melissa Neely, who has hosted the event with husband Stephen for the past 21 years. For the past 11 years, it's also served as a fundraiser for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. “We thought it would be fun to have people over and entertain. Once we found we could use the party to help with the food bank, the purpose shifted.”
The Neelys are one of several families profiled in Maggie Stuckey's “Soup Night: Recipes for Creating Community Around a Pot of Soup” ($19.95, Storey Publishing). The book is a compilation of stories, recipes and tips from folks who have hosted similar events all over the country.
Stuckey first experienced such an event in Portland, Ore., where a close-knit neighborhood has been hosting soup nights for years. As she brings readers into the homes of the various hosts, it soon become clear that these events are about much more than whatever's on the stove.
People of all ages and backgrounds find themselves bonding over each bowl. They get to know one another, strengthening the sense of community in their neighborhood. They watch children grow, look out for one another and establish a trust that creates an ideal place to live.
“Almost all the soup groups are in big cities in very urban environments,” Stuckey says. “Because they're from big cities, they're from all different demographics. They might not have prior connections, but they form these wonderful bonds of community.
“They are kind, generous and helpful. This whole modern stigma of people being rude seems to disappear.”
Stuckey, an avid gardener who loves using homegrown ingredients to cook, was not surprised to learn soup was the meal at the heart of something so powerful.
“It almost has a magical quality,” she says. “It can make you feel good in so many ways. When you're little, your mom makes you chicken noodle soup. It's warm, comforting, cozy. With both your hands around the bowl, it can warm your soul at the same time.”
Food is often used as a catalyst for problem-solving, Stuckey says. Breaking bread with others helps unite people and establish a common ground. Soup is especially effective in this way, Stuckey says.
“It's very homey,” she says. “It puts people at ease. It puts you in a frame of mind of being comforted.”
Soup is also ideal for large gatherings, because it's easy to make, Stuckey says.
“Even if you don't consider yourself a cook, you can still make it,” she says. “It's a great use of leftovers. Add a few of your favorite spices and a good chicken stock, and there you go.”
The Neelys first started hosting soup nights in 1993 when the newly married Melissa and Stephen wanted to invite about 20 friends to their apartment. Today, that apartment wouldn't be able to hold the crowd. By distributing printed and emailed invitations, maintaining a blog and a recent foray into social media, they have their guest list up in the hundreds now.
The December 2013 Big Soup Party attracted 262 people. While there is no charge to attend the event, donations for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank are accepted. They added up to more than $4,000 at the most-recent event.
“We wanted something a diverse group of people could get behind,” says Stephen Neely about the food bank. “They do amazing work, and they do need the support.”
While the event attracts new faces each year, many of the guests have come to 10 or more Big Soups. To get ready for the crowd, the Neelys start shopping for nonperishable ingredients weeks ahead of time. The day before, they prepare 50 gallons of soup in six massive pots.
Neither Stephen nor Melissa Neely has any culinary training, but they love trying new recipes. Some make it on the menu for that year's event, like this year's wildly popular Arizona Hippie soup with quinoa, cashews, spinach and southwest seasonings. Their Potato Cheese Soup is also a staple.
Volunteers as well as the Neelys' three sons — Evan, 16, Joel, 14, and Liam, 10 — help out with labeling each item, setting and cleaning up. Over the past two decades, they've gotten the routine pretty much down, the Neelys say. They even designed the home they renovated three years ago with the Big Soup Party in mind, with its open floor plan, roomy kitchen and even rooms designated for holding all the coats. Guests bring sides, desserts, drinks and more, adding to the community feel of the event.
The work is well worth it, with each event turning into an evening of fun with folks gathered around the piano upstairs, the pool table downstairs or just chatting, eating and enjoying themselves. Lenny Young of Wilkinsburg has attended all but one Big Soup Party and has enjoyed watching it grow over the years.
“The idea for the party is just spectacular,” he says. “It encourages community and allows people to bond over food, which is always a great idea.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recipes and photos from Maggie Stuckey's “Soup Night: Recipes for Creating Community Around a Pot of Soup” ($19.95, Storey Publishing) used with permission.
Neely's Potato-Cheese Soup
Melissa and Stephen Neely of Regent Square contributed this recipe.
8 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
2 cups diced celery
2 cups diced onions
2 cups diced carrots
8 cups vegetable broth
1⁄2 teaspoon marjoram
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
Freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese, plus more for garnish, optional
Combine the potatoes, celery, onions and carrots using a large soup pot. Pour in the broth, add the marjoram and seasoned salt, and simmer until the vegetables are very soft.
Puree the soup in an immersion blender until it is smooth.
Add the cheese and season with pepper. Serve hot with a bowls of extra shredded cheese on the table for an optional garnish.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Chicken and Artichoke Soup
Eric and Kat Meyer of Cleveland say: “This is our version of a wonderful shrimp soup we learned about years ago in a New Orleans cooking school. We used chicken instead of shrimp and added the sherry.”
4 cups chicken broth
3 packages (8 ounces each) frozen artichokes, thawed and quartered
1 cup chopped green onions, plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
Old Bay seasoning, to taste
4 tablespoons butter
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
4 cups heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Chopped, fresh parsley, for garnish
Combine the broth, artichokes, green onions, thyme and Old Bay to taste in a large soup pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan and whisk in the flour, stirring constantly over low heat for 1 to 2 minutes to make a light roux, then add the roux to the soup pot gradually, stirring as you go. Add the chicken and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes, until cooked through.
Add the cream, stir, and simmer for 10 minutes longer.
Reduce the heat, add the sherry to taste, and season with salt and pepper.
Garnish with the parsley and additional green onions. Serve hot.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Chicken Soup With Lentils and Barley
Here's another soup that starts with cooked chicken, perhaps a rotisserie bird from the supermarket. This is also a great way to use leftover turkey.
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 cup sliced leeks or chopped onions
1⁄2 cup chopped red or green sweet bell pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
5 cups chicken broth
1 1⁄2 teaspoons snipped, fresh basil, or 1⁄2 teaspoon dried basil, crushed
1 teaspoon snipped, fresh oregano, or 1⁄4 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
3⁄4 teaspoon snipped, fresh rosemary, or 1⁄4 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 cup brown lentils, rinsed and drained
1 1⁄2 cups chopped cooked chicken or turkey
1 1⁄2 cups sliced carrots
1⁄2 cup quick-cooking barley
1 can (15 ounces) tomatoes, cut up, juices reserved
Melt the butter in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the leeks or onions, bell pepper and garlic, and saute until tender but not brown, for about 4 minutes.
Carefully stir in the broth, basil, oregano, rosemary, pepper and the lentils; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
Stir in the chicken or turkey, carrots and barley. Simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes longer, or just until the carrots and barley are tender.
Stir in the tomatoes and reserved juices; heat through. Serve hot.
Makes 6 servings.
Edamame Corn Chowder
Edamame is the Japanese name for soybeans harvested when young, still at the “shelling” stage. Outside of Asian markets, you are most likely to find them in the freezer compartment of your supermarket, either shelled or still in the pods. This creamy chowder is lower in fat content than many, because the cream-style corn replaces some of the usual quantity of half-and-half.
6 strips bacon, diced
2 medium onions, chopped
7 1⁄2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 red potatoes, cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
4 cups frozen, shelled edamame
2 cans (15 ounces each) cream-style corn
1 cup half-and-half
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large soup pot, cook the bacon over medium heat until browned and crisp, for 5 to 6 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat.
Add the onions to the bacon fat and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the broth, potatoes and Italian seasoning. Simmer until the potatoes are just tender, for about 6 minutes.
Stir in the edamame, corn and half-and-half. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer until the edamame is tender, for about 8 minutes.
Serve the chowder sprinkled with the reserved bacon.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Starting your own soup group
For anyone interested in starting a neighborhood soup night, Maggie Stuckey encourages keeping it simple.
“Soup by nature is very easy to make,” she says. “It's not fancy or intimidating. Your house doesn't have to be clean. The dishes don't have to match.”
Her book, “Soup Night,” offers pointers for anyone who'd like to get the party started:
• Recruit another neighbor as a partner to help invite others if you don't know all your neighbors. Take that person with you door-to-door to tell everyone about the event.
• Write a short letter explaining the idea and providing your address and phone number, date and time and other pertinent information, and deliver them during your trip around the neighborhood.
• Invite everyone in the area you consider your neighborhood — don't leave anyone out.
• Make it easy on guests. Don't require they bring anything or even RSVP. As Barbara Rice of Chantilly, Va., writes in the book, “This is definitely hospitality rather than entertaining. It's a simple welcome and sharing, and that simplicity makes it easier for folks to come.”
• Do as much in advance as possible. Keep the soups warm on the stove and label them.
• Pick a local charity and accept donations for it.
• When you've got the ball rolling, establish a regular day and time, such as the third Monday of each month at 7:30 p.m., so people know the event is coming up again.
• Ask others to get involved as hosts. Then, designate someone to be responsible for setting the date, designating the host family and notifying the neighbors.