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Free Soup, Bread and Hospitality

A small catastrophe arose in the Hideout on April 13.  As a few people dropped their donations into the almost full crockpot of cash, they turned to pick up their prize: a bowl, a spoon and just past five vats of soup.  But no spoon was in sight.  After a few moments of bemused looks between those in line, suddenly spoons were in a cup, ready for the taking.  Behind the cup stood the Soup Master, Martha Bayne.

soup and bread
Working at Soup and Bread photo by Martha

Bayne is the founder of Soup and Bread, a community meal held at the Hideout on Wednesday evenings starting in the holiday afterglow of January and running into April.  The first Soup and Bread was in 2009, after Bayne decided to spice up her slow Wednesday nights at the Hideout, while giving her Great Recession slapped friends a free meal and a place to go.  She also decided to use the event to get donations (no minimum or requirement at all) for the Greater Chicago Food Depository and other food relief organizations.

“It started out pretty small.  The first night that we did it we had three soup cooks and then it just snowballed from there and took off and took on a life of its own,” said Bayne.  At the final meal of the year, more than 100 people showed up to enjoy the five different soups, including a mulligawtawny soup, a spicy fish soup, and a Scotch broth that had a more intense lamb flavor than your average lambchop.  The broth was created through a two week process to get all of the flavor out of the bones, which were easily procured by its creators, Rob and Allie Levitt.  They own The Butcher and Larder, located near the Milwaukee and Noble intersection.

“Since it is for charity, I’m willing to donate bones to future Soup and Bread cooks,” said the Levitt with an Adam’s apple.  Their generosity is a sign of something else Bayne says has surprised her about Soup and Bread: the community building power of soup.

“It sounds corny, but it is true.  One of the things I really love about Soup and Bread is that all of the sudden you have all these people from different but overlapping and intersecting parts of Chicago…and all are in the same relatively small space.  And these very surprising connections get made,” Bayne said.

Those connections were evident by watching Sheila Sachs, the self-described managing editor/art director of Soup and Bread, as she rushed around, delivering pie slices here and napkins there, all the while greeting and hugging people.  All around her, friends greeted each other as well, with even the few wallflower loners soon being joined by others.

“No one feels like they are being, like they are giving up more money than they need to or more money than they want to.  It is just sort of good on all aspects.  The cooks ask to come back every year and enjoy doing it,” said Sachs, a two-time soup cook herself.

Sachs designed the Soup and Bread Cookbook (sold out but another is due out later this year) and Soupscription cards, which are soup and bread recipes mailed monthly to subscribers.  For this Soup and Bread, she also procured the creators of the pie and desserts that are only supplied for the final night of each season. The desserts included a key lime pie (delicious), prune pecan cherry brownies (just-this-side-of-gummy with a dark cocoa flavor to mix with the fruits) and PBR cupcakes, which actually mixed the flavor of the cheap beer into a sweet, if unusual, treat.  The cupcakes were from the Swim Cafe, near Chicago and Noble, who also provided a soup this week and have helped set the room up, said Bayne.

Bayne said the work of getting the soup cooks and other preparatory tasks keep her busy, akin to an unpaid full-time job.  On top of that unpaid job, Bayne also holds two editing positions, freelances as a writer, and bartends at the Hideout.  Despite all the work that goes into the cookbook, each weekly meal, and even occasional Soup and Breads in other cities, Bayne said it is still creatively satisfying for her.  Also, she has a lot of help.

“The execution of it is more of a community effort,” said Bayne, which she backed up by listing Sachs, the Swim Cafe, the staff at the Hideout and others as contributors.  Bayne intends to continue to update the Soup and Bread Blog, and is writing about other soup related events for the next cookbook.  She said she is fascinated to see how the atmosphere, presentation and the soup itself can effect the perceived hospitality of a place.  Small details, like having the cooks serve their soup and stay by it for questions and compliments, can help create a friendlier, more communal, feel, said Bayne.

Those little touches, along with some hearty soup, happy tunes, and the unflagging dedication of the volunteers and Bayne seemed to create a warm spot in a long Chicago winter.

“Watching that happen over the last several years has been really gratifying.  I love it.  It is really fun to facilitate that,” Bayne said.

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