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Soup contest brings out best, worst of home chefs



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Updated: January 4, 2013 8:12AM

For the past eight years I have been part of a soup exchange.

Like book clubs and carpools, the soup exchange is the epitome of suburban family life. Eight people make eight quarts of soup — seven to swap and one to taste. Making eight quarts of soup is tough enough. Making eight quarts of good soup is overwhelming. For me, the week before the annual exchange is filled with frantic cooking and stress.

Some of us are great cooks; others not so much. The pros start months in advance, trying multiple recipes, tinkering with spices and optimizing flavors. The rest of us scramble at the last minute, begging relatives for secret recipes, hoping for the best. The last week is not the time for experiments; there is no time for disasters. I have labored for hours making mini-meatball soup, only to have the pasta soak up all the liquid and create a soggy, gummy mess. A neighbor gave me a five-onion soup recipe that was supposed to be a sure hit. I chopped mountains of onions and created a soup with the consistency of chunky applesauce. Even after a few glasses of wine, it was not a hit.

So many things to consider — is the soup freezer friendly? Does it require expensive ingredients? I agonize. I have nixed recipes that require large amounts of shrimp or crab. Slow cooker soups are popular because most are easy to make. And while I love cream soups, I loathe making them, preferring not to know or see just how much cream is in there.

Some of the soups are spectacular. We have had amazing Greek lemon chicken soup and white chili with chicken. Beef barley, chicken and dumplings, sausage tortellini and roasted red pepper also were favorites. One person brought a hamburger soup that sounded disgusting but actually was quite tasty — my kids devoured it and asked for more. Carrot ginger soup was a universal flop — we never saw the person who made that recipe again. Sometimes the exchanges are not fair. Swapping my chunky five-onion soup with Thai shrimp curry soup is not an equitable trade.

Now that we have a prize for the best soup, the exchange has become a blood sport. Kind of like the TV show “Survivor” — there are secret alliances, bribes and threats. Recipes are guarded, and the trash talk would shock a truck driver. There are unspoken rules and punishments for violations. Showing up empty-handed can trigger vicious gossip. One person didn’t make her own soup but bought it at a restaurant. She was voted off the island and replaced by someone with commercial-grade kitchen appliances (even though the restaurant soup was pretty good). One person served wine, fresh bread and cannoli with her pasta e fagioli. The soup purists saw this as a bribe and refused to vote for her soup. The winner is crowned soup queen, and the prize is the humiliation of wearing a pink boa and a tiara and having your photo posted on all of our Facebook pages.

We are a busy group. We work outside the home and inside the home. We take care of kids, parents and pets. None of us really has time to make eight quarts of soup, but we find it. Often our families have to fend for themselves, scraping together dinner while we monopolize the kitchen for days on end, searching for the perfect recipe that eludes us. It’s ironic — making large quantities of soup while husbands and children starve.

For that one week we eat, breathe and live soup. Then we exchange, catch up and share something authentic and homemade. We know deep down we should be equally, if not more, concerned about really important issues like the economy and the state of public education. But we obsess anyway. While some of the soups didn’t taste that great the night of the exchange, they taste a whole lot better later when we are too busy to make dinner. It always tastes better when someone else makes it. And after every drop is gone, we start plotting our game plan for next year.

This essay appeared in the winter 2012 edition of Northwestern magazine. Pamela Kao Ohno, who is based in Florida, grew up in northwest suburban Arlington Heights. She came in second (by one vote) when she made Emeril Lagasse’s wonton soup (recipe at right).

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