When the mercury registers in the negative numbers, we hibernate inside our own homes and lose touch with our neighbors. Maggie Stuckey's new cookbook, "Soup Night: Recipes for Creating Community Around a Pot of Soup," offers an antidote.
"The need for community, for feeling connected to our fellow human beings, is universal and timeless," Stuckey writes. " ... the more fractured our lives become, the more we yearn for that sense of connectedness -- and the more elusive it seems."
The premise of Soup Night is simple: If you make it (soup), they (your neighbors) will come.
That's the lesson learned by a couple of local women who share their stories in Stuckey's book.
"We had just moved here and didn't know anyone on the block," said Kate Allen. who started Soup Night in her Aurora neighborhood a decade ago with her roommate at the time.
"We didn't know anyone on the block. We handed out invitations and wanted to see who would show up," Allen recalls. "Five people showed up that first night, but little by little every week it start to catch on. It was cool to see neighbors coming in."
Julie Dahlberg of Wildwood had the same experience when she first sent the invitation for a weekly Soup Night.
"It shouldn't be strange to have your neighbors over for dinner, but it is," said Dahlberg, a mother of three. "People think 'what's the catch?'
"I had six couples that first night, then eight the next; gradually it got bigger and by the end of the season we had 20 families coming," Dahlberg said, explaining "soup season" is October to March. "It got so big; most of us eat standing up."
In her book, Stuckey lays out soup pantry must-haves, and cooking basics and some 90 recipes for soups (arranged seasonally) and accompaniments (Cheddar Drop Biscuits, Raspberry Sherbet). Sprinkled among the recipes are stories from Allen, Dahlberg and others from across the country that can help you set up Soup Night in your neck of the woods.
One of the first rules is that Soup Night is not formal. No table to set or silver to polish. It's just soup.
Guests come as they are after work, after working out, after the kids' gymnastics practice, and stay for as long as they can. If they have to run to a meeting or get the kids back home for homework, that's OK. The point of Soup Night is to reconnect with people you haven't seen since the first frost or only waved to when as you pulled the Christmas tree to the curb.
It's also not a party. Many Soup Nights take place during the week so it's easier on the host family. People don't linger like they might if it was on a Friday or Saturday, and there's not that feeling that you have to entertain.
In many Soup Night scenarios, the host provides the soup -- often two types -- and guests bring bread, salad, wine or cookies and, in some neighborhoods, their own bowls.
"People bring what they feel is needed," Dahlberg said.
If no one brings a salad, oh well, there's no salad.
In Allen's case, her roommate has since moved and started Soup Night in her new neighborhood while Allen and her husband, Jimi, have kept it going. Soup Night has grown so popular there are now three host houses and neighbors rotate where they go each month. Families are on a waiting list for the opportunity to host it.
"Our neighborhood is like a small town, or something from the 1950s," says Allen's neighbor Cheyenne Johnson in Stuckey's book. "We trust each other, we help each other. And I know it really started with Soup Night."
Dahlberg has been out of the Soup Night routine for a couple of years, but with January's cold snap keeping everyone indoors she's yearning to see her neighbors and knows a steamy pot of soup will draw them out.
"I've really missed doing it," Dahlberg said. "I'm ready to do it again."