My Misadventures in Soup Group

It was a social soup experiment gone wrong.

Disappointment is when your expectations don’t match up with reality. The farther your reality falls short of your expectations, the greater the disappointment. But what happens when the chasm between expectations and reality is so great — the canyon so wide — that your expectations are so far away that what you’re looking at is no longer even a glimmer of hope, but rather an abyss?


That’s the only way I can describe the Soup Group my husband, Jon, and I joined three falls ago.

We had just moved into a new house in Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood. It was a quaint row home on a historic block lined with brick sidewalks and a garden so whimsical it had won a Philadelphia Horticultural Society award the previous year. This was the first home Jon and I would share together as a couple — our first grown up home.

Like any new home it was a fresh start. It was a new life to set new goals and accomplish new dreams. Among those dreams was to get involved with our community, get to know our neighbors and make new friends. I legit had fantasies of meeting another young couple that we’d share a drink with on our new stoop. Maybe, while out running errands we’d bump into this couple on the street and have a quick 15 minute gossip session about the neighborhood before going on with our lives. Anything seemed possible.

One day, a flyer inviting us to join a neighborhood Soup Group appeared in our mailbox. It’s not often that a flyer actually gets my attention and even rarer that I participate in anything a flyer advertises (aside from yard sales, which I will always attend). But this flyer was advertising two things I really wanted: friends and free soup.

Photo by Valeria Boltneva from Pexels

The concept of Soup Group was simple — you’d be lumped into a group of neighbors and every Sunday throughout the chilly, fall months, one neighbor would make a big batch of soup and everyone in the group would go to their house, grab some soup, and enjoy. Every week you’d meet a new neighbor, try a new soup, and hopefully, make a new friend.

It was a domesticated, middle-aged woman’s dream. A program engineered to make you socialize with your neighbors. A reason to cook for guests and have people come into your home. Friendship by force of self-imposed social obligation. Jon and I were so in! It sounded like a fun social experiment. At best we’d get to the end of fall having made new friends and at worst we’d get soup and several Sundays off from cooking dinner.

While waiting to see who was assigned as our new best soup friends I searched magazines, Pinterest and Instagram for recipes. It was like trying to find an outfit for a blind date — I wanted to find recipes that were impressive and interesting without coming off too complicated. Chicken noodle soup is too plain, but Gumbo comes off too desperate, like you’re trying too hard. Nobody wants desperate soup.

Soup Group started off strong. We were in a group with four other families, a couple of which had small children. It was the perfect sized group to cook hearty soups that had a bit of pizazz without going overboard and spending too much money on ingredients. The first round I made a creamy tortellini soup with kale and Italian sausage. Another neighbor, who had heard I would be traveling to Mexico for work, made an incredible green chicken pozole stew that she had learned to make on her own travels through Oaxaca. We were sharing soup while sharing life moments.

The intimate size of our group also allowed us to get to know one another better. A few weeks in, Jon and I were already making friends with another couple who just had a newborn baby. The husband had even offered Jon a beer one evening! Our beer-on-the-stoop dreams were coming true!

But sadly, our new budding friendship would end as quickly as it started. The young parents decided to move out to Pittsburgh to be closer to their family.

And then there were three… But three’s a crowd and apparently not a proper Soup Group according to the program coordinators. Three families is too quick of a soup rotation. Instead of cooking only one batch of soup every 4 - 5 weeks, like other Soup Groups, our group would be churning out soup every 3 weeks. So they decided to combine Soup Groups — we went from a modest four families and doubled to eight families.

Eight families! That’s soup for at minimum 16 individuals, not counting children! We went from the smallest Soup Group to the largest. We became the Super Soup Group.

The dynamic of the group changed dramatically. It was like adding new characters to a sitcom after several episodes! And it was very clear that coming from the smaller group that we, our tiny Soup Group of three, were the new characters. Soup exchanges got weird. With such a large group, we only got to meet new neighbors once or twice in their homes. Sometimes we’d see them in passing while waiting awkwardly in a stranger’s kitchen for them to ladle out this week’s mystery soup.

Which brings me to an important point: soup quality. In the middle of the Soup Group social experiment it was becoming clear that goal number one, making new friends, wasn’t panning out the way we’d expected. And hopes to achieve goal number two, free (decent and edible) soup, were also beginning to fade.

Though we were making soup way less frequently, the soup we did have to make was massive, which presented a lot of challenges. How do you make sure there’s enough meat for eight families in a beef and vegetable soup? Or how much butternut squash must you puree to make sure everyone goes home with enough? Adding water to stretch it out will only water down the soup! And then how do you know when a batch soup that big is seasoned enough? Chefs may be trained in the art of making gigantic vats of soup, but generally, home cooks aren’t. I’d come to learn a valuable lesson in soup economics that year — when the quantity of Soup Group members increases, the quality of Soup Group soup decreases.

One week we got a no-name soup of undercooked potatoes floating in a broth solely made of boxed chicken stock. Another week it was a watery minestrone with a few veggies floating in sparse sea of tomato. But the one soup that I will never forget, a soup whose flavor is forever burned onto my palate’s memory, was a burnt green lentil soup.

Every week, whoever’s turn it was to make soup would give everyone a heads up via email of what soup they were planning to make. We knew that green lentil soup was on the menu so we prepared the rest of our meal around that as the main course. We bought nice bread to dip in the soup, ingredients for a Mediterranean side salad with a tangy vinaigrette, and a tart white wine.

We arrived at lentil soup family’s home where they very generously filled up our Tupperware with thick, creamy lentil soup. We scurried home excited that, after weeks of watered down soup, it looked like we were finally going to have a night where I didn’t have to make a second backup dinner.

As soon as we got home we opened the still hot container of lentil soup and were immediately punched in the nostrils with a strange, smoky aroma. Is that the soup or people smoking in the back alley behind our house? Hoping for the later we each took a spoonful of green lentil soup — and then another — and then another in utter disbelief that lentils could acquire such a horrible taste. After each bite, there was a very repulsive and distinct flavor that was building. That flavor was cigarette smoke.

Yes. Burnt lentils tastes like cigarettes. Wet, stale cigarettes. And just like cigarettes, the smell of the burnt lentil soup lingered in our home for hours after popping open the Tupperware lid. The Tupperware, which held the soup for less than 30 minutes before Jon flushed it down the toilet, reeked like cigarettes. No matter how many times I soaked it and washed it in soapy water, the smell clung to the Tupperware as if it were a car that a smoker had been driving for 15 years. After a few weeks, I lost hope that our Tupperware would be saved from its smoky stench and threw it away.

As the final weeks of Soup Group came to an end I made sure to have a backup dinner prepared just in case. There were a few good soups in the batch, but nothing (aside from that incredible green chicken pozole) was that memorable. And on our last week of Soup Group Jon and I celebrated with our own batch of seafood bisque — an intimate serving for two where I pulled out all the stops. It was a soup dressed to impress!

I love the idea of Soup Group, and I’m not opposed to joining another Soup Group in the future. But if you’re thinking about joining or starting a Soup Group, here are a few tips.

  1. It needs to be a small group. Four families was perfect!

  2. Soup is social. The whole point of Soup Group is to share time with friends rather than just swinging by and passively picking up soup. Perhaps make soup part of your weekly friend gathering or book club. It might be hard now with the pandemic and social distancing. But if you can coordinate an outdoor soup picnic, enjoy soup together over Zoom, or even cook together virtually that could be ways to keep Soup Group engaging. It’s fun to share food and swap recipes!

  3. Soup is simple! Don’t over think it and please, do not burn it!

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Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY's Check, Please! Philly, a television show that explores dining throughout the Philadelphia region. She is a Maker with KitchenAid as well as a food and travel writer who enjoys exploring the history and culture of cuisine.