One February night last winter my husband and I went out for fancy pizza and beer while my parents hung out with the toddler. As we sat together at the end of the shining wooden bar, I presented him with my question for the evening; If you could be known for anything, what would you want it to be? "Ummm, guitar I guess. Yeah, guitar." after he answered, as is our custom, it was my turn to answer my own question. When I come up with these date night conversation starters, I make a point not to think of my own answer ahead of time, it's simply not fair or in the spirit of the practice.
I sat on my stool, sipped by beer, and across my mind flashed an imaginary headline "woman feeds 200, wants nothing in return" The image didn't have any more detail than that, but it was enough to give me my answer "I'd want to be known for being generous with food."
"Well that seems do-able." was Scott's predictably practical response. We left the restaurant that night with a plan to start hosting a weekly dinner at our house. Two weeks later we hosted nine adults and four kids for dinner, and everyone had a blast. The food, a traditional Tunisian chickpea, bread and harissa soup, cost less than $15, and we had bountiful leftovers.
We hosted four more soup & bread nights, Italian lentil with rustic rolls, dahl and naan, sweet potato chili with cornbread, and creamy tomato with crusty rye. Each of those dinners brought together a different combination of friends and family, young and old. Through a series of unfortunate events, we were displaced from our home for a month and a half after our last soup night. Then the hottest Vermont summer on record set in, and I couldn't imagine anyone felt like soup.
Now that the chill is returning to the air, I'm looking forward to re-starting our weekly dinners. Thinking back, there are a few things that made this event work:
-We set really relaxed expectations.
It's not a potluck, you don't need to contribute food, just come to enjoy. People did bring little things like cheese and crackers, but there wasn't any pressure to bring anything. I started a little facebook group and would post the soup of the night so people knew what to expect. We gave a window of time in which it was acceptable to show up, and didn't have any official seated dinner time; people could just show up when it worked for them and eat when they were ready.
- I didn't set myself up for a lot of hosting stress.
The part of having a bunch of people over for dinner that I don't like is the cleaning, both before and after, By asking people to bring their own bowls about half of them would remember to, and it cut way down on dishes. Now we have a dishwasher, so I won't even really care if people bring bowls when we get started again. I also made a mental commitment to myself not to go beyond a basic tidy up we do every day anyway; it's easy for having guests over to become stressful, but by deciding we were just sharing our evening family meal, I let go of the need to be a perfect hostess, and as long as I had a delicious soup ready for people to eat, and the floor was clean enough to sit on, I had fulfilled my duty for the night.
-The food was really simple and inexpensive.
We made the decision to have our dinners be vegetarian soup and fresh bread because it's pretty much the cheapest meal you can make from scratch. For less than paying for my half of a lunch out with a friend, we were able to fill our house with well fed friends and their children. Homemade soup is cheap and easy, but it's also soothing and nourishing. Finding an affordable way to get together with friends and make them feel cared for is invaluable.
If you're interested in starting your own soup night, here's a few great recipes to get you started:
One of our perennial family favorites, Mango Dahl
Quinoa Sweet Potato Chili
Italian Lentil Soup
It's so easy to get stuck in a holding pattern of saying you'd love to see friends and never actually doing it, especially once kids are in the mix. By having a standing date, where there's not guilt whether you can come or not, and your kids can just run around and be kids (unlike going out,) without anyone needing to spend a bunch of money, you can take a lot of the barriers down to making gathering with your village a reality. Whether it's once a week, once a month, or once in a blue moon, I hope you'll try hosting a soup night of your own.