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Soup Swap Adds Variety to Winter Menus

For Soup Swaps, each person brings six quarts of soup. They then draw numbers and go around the room six times until everybody goes home with new soups.

Getting more mileage out of homemade soup

As the days in the northern hemisphere, get darker and colder, hot soup sounds pretty inviting. A homemade pot of soup can be healthy, economical and delicious. But by day four, it can also get kind of boring.

So people are coming together to get more mileage out of the humble bowl of soup.

A few years ago, Seattle, Washington, technical consultant Knox Gardner made a big pot of soup, and got a little sick of eating it day after day. So he decided to get a few friends together for a trade.

"My original idea was that it would be some loud, boisterous kind of event, where you would trade three of my corn chowders, because you know I'm an awesome cook, for, you know, one of your minestrones," says Gardner.

This was the beginning of Soup Swap. As you can imagine, the math on this laissez-faire approach didn't work too well. So Gardner came up with some guidelines.

"You bring six quarts, and then draw numbers and go around the room six times until everybody gets all new soups."

In addition to a set of rules, Gardner got a website, a self-proclaimed National Soup Swap day in January, and some Internet hype from food bloggers. The idea spread across the country. There are swaps in New York with hand-foraged mushroom chowder, and swaps in Texas showcasing processed cheese soup.

A variety of containers, some of them recycled, are used during Soup Swap night.
A variety of containers, some of them recycled, are used during Soup Swap night.

In Portland, Oregon, Jon Van Oast and Megan Kelley invited a dozen friends to a Soup Swap on a chilly Sunday. People started by sharing their stories, a little ritual Gardner calls, "The Telling of the Soup." Some recipes came from the Internet, and some, like Christina Kellogg-Gratschner's fruit soup, were family traditions.

"Fruit soup is something that my mom would make out of all her home canning pears, peaches, whatever she happened to have," Christina Kellogg-Gratschner. "And she'd cook it up with a little bit of cornstarch, and pour it on whole wheat toast."

Swappers then went around the circle, choosing their six quarts. People were definitely excited about leaving with a variety of soups… especially those balancing busy lives. Stacy Meyer teaches fifth grade, and scrambles to fit inexpensive and healthy meals into her schedule.

"I will admit to having the breakfast-for-dinner kind of thing, that's happened before," says Meyer. "And so being able to have a ready-made dinner in the freezer helps out quite a bit."

People are increasingly coming together for these sorts of informal swaps, says Boston University economist Juliet Schor. In her latest book, "Plenitude," Schor says the economic downturn has made more people open to the idea of swapping. And the Internet has made it easier.

"In the past, if you wanted to organize some kind of a neighborhood swap or sharing scheme, you'd have to go around and call the people in the neighborhood, knock on their doors, etc. So there's a lot of what economists call transactions costs. With the Internet, that's drastically reduced."

And Schor says that once these swaps do come together, they reinforce connections between people. It's what economists and sociologists call "social capital." And Schor says communities with strong social capital work better.

"Soup may seem like a small thing, but it may turn out that your sharing network is very important to you if you lose your job, if your housing is in jeopardy. You're going to have these folks to rely on."

There has been a rise in Soup Swap activity every year, as more groups start up. Founder Gardner agrees the Internet and the economy have helped its popularity, but - he insists - it's also because of the soup.

"I think that there's something really fundamental that happens when people bring food together to share it. Soup's like the ultimate soul food."

The fifth national soup swap will be held on January 22, 2011 and Gardner is expecting thousands of quarts of soup to change hands.