When Angelika Heim had her first child three years ago, she started making large batches of soup to freeze as a time-saver for feeding her growing family.
She told her other new-mom friends what she was up to, some of whom happened to be excellent cooks, and before you could say, "Pass the ladle," a soup swap was born.
The first time she held a swap, she invited four close friends to her house, asking each one to come with a big pot of soup. The recipe ideas were shared via e-mail ahead of time to avoid duplication and to invite feedback about allergies and aversions. Then, on the day of the event, "we divided up the soups into separate containers and everyone went home with five different freezer-ready meals," says Heim, a Toronto lawyer who recently gave birth for the second time.
That first soup swap was named Super Bowl Sunday and the gathering was so successful that it soon spawned a second edition with a third planned for later this year. (A sauce swap is also in the works.)
"I do the swaps because I love to cook but sometimes my repertoire starts to feel repetitive," Heim explains. "Trying other people's food serves as inspiration and gives our family a night off from cooking, which is great when you have a toddler and newborn in tow."
But the soup swap is popular for more than just the break from cooking that a well-stocked freezer provides.
The event itself gives the friends an excuse to get together on a Saturday afternoon and relax over a gourmet brunch that Heim prepares. There are no kids or husbands in attendance, there is always wine and the conversation typically touches on everything but soup – at least until the warm bottles and Tupperwares (and accompanying printouts of the recipes) are distributed at the end of the afternoon.
The soup swap is said to have originated in 1999 in Seattle by Web consultant Knox Gardner, who took the notion of soup-as-soul-food and turned it into a social-media phenomenon when he created the site soupswap.com.
Since its launch, followers from all across North America and as far away as Scotland have participated in National Soup Swap Day, whose seventh annual instalment took place this past January, following the tips laid out on Gardner's site.
As he writes on his blog, soup swaps cement communities: "It's good to know your neighbours and to have them know you. Drinking wine, swapping soup and listening to how much care and interest people put into cooking for others is a great way to start."
That has certainly been the experience of Lydia Walshin, a Rhode Island-based e-cookbook author who is herself a National Soup Swap Day devotee. "I've hosted four soup swaps," says Walshin, who shares her own recipes on the two websites she runs, soupchick.com and theperfectpantry.com.
"The first time, I invited five girlfriends, so we had six soups to swap including my own. The last time I did it, 24 women came. It's definitely growing in popularity."
This can present its own challenges.
Not everyone owns a pot that can hold more than six quarts of liquid, so for a larger soup party – that is, anything more crowded than the host and five guests – a little more organization (and a lottery system) will be required. Here are Walshin's suggestions for a swap that's sure to be a hit.
1. Let every guest know how many soup containers to bring and what volume of soup each one should hold (a quart-sized jar, bag or Tupperware is a good choice). And ask guests to bring all soups to the swap frozen. (They're easier to transport that way.)
2. Ask all participants to e-mail their recipes to you before the event. You can collate them into a single document and forward them to everyone after the swap, but print one copy to have on hand the day of the gathering so that attendees can peruse the ingredient list of each soup before making their selections.
3. For a larger group, organize a lottery system. Start by making numbered tags to determine what order guests will choose their soups in. (You'll need as many numbers as you have guests, not including yourself, because as host, you should be the last to choose in each round.) At the swap, you'll place all the numbers in a bowl and invite guests to draw. Number one chooses a soup first and so on until all the guests have picked their first soup. Next, they'll put all the numbers back in the bowl, then choose again for the second round, repeating until all the soup is spoken for.
4. When introducing the soups at the beginning of the swap, choose a lively storyteller to present her soup first – explaining what's in it and why she chose the recipe. People tend to follow the leader, and a good presenter will set the tone for the evening. If you are the best presenter in your group, go first.
5. Invite the best soup makers you know, and don't be afraid to challenge them with ground rules – all soups, for instance, could be gluten-free or meatless.
After all, it's no fun when the only soups left are meat-based and the last people to select their soups are vegetarians.
Of course, it's the host's responsibility to trade a jar or two to make sure guests leave with soups they will enjoy.