When we moved to Oak Park in June of 2010, my husband and I had vague notions of what an intentional, deliberate community could look like. We knew this was a village of involved citizens and genuinely liked the neighbors we met as we hauled the dozens of boxes of books a liberal arts education left me with. We heard of commissions and boards made of, by and for the people. It all sounded good to us. Within our first years of living here, though, Oak Park pushed our notions of what community can be past any of our most hopeful, optimistic musings.
A long told tale, we started to think about casually looking at houses a few months after our wedding. Within just a few months more, we were elbow deep in mortgage paperwork and packaging tape. Our efforts to “just look” were quickly nullified by a perfect-for-us little bungalow two blocks from one of my oldest friends. But that quick push meant we would unpack and leave for a summer abroad without really starting to establish ourselves in the neighborhood.
And yet, our next-door neighbors happily let us in when we repeatedly locked ourselves out. They then mowed our lawn while we were away and cheerfully collected packages. When we got home, they welcomed us home. We were home.
When our daughter was born in March of 2011, warm wishes were sent. Clothing and toys, new and old, were dropped on our doorstep. When, a few months later, I began suffering from postpartum depression, food and fresh flowers along with supportive chats and offers of help became the norm. Rather than hiding and being embarrassed, we felt supported and bolstered by people whose tie to us was, primarily, that thread of that notion of that hope for community.
And, when our little family began to thrive instead of survive we were swallowed up into a community we now discuss with something bordering on reverence. Our 13-month-old toddler taking all those books off all those shelves will grow up in this community of play dates and parties, loaned bread pans, shared childcare, beer brewing, and now plans for The Sugar Beet Co-op.
We were eager, then, to give back. Our toy collection doesn’t inspire the older kids and we’re still figuring out how to garden. So, I took to finding ways to foster community that didn’t involve bored four-years-olds staring at my daughter’s lame toys or me touching anyone’s poor, unsuspecting plants or herbs. Heck, I even think I could ruin compost. But I wanted to help build and sustain this community so that it ripples out into ever-larger circles of our Oak Park community. Is it idealistic? Yes. Is it unusual? I hope not. Is it possible? One hundred per cent, yes.
The beautiful thing is that it is possible on a micro scale, on a neighborhood scale, and on a when-we-can-pull-it-off scale. Realizing that my desire to be a Super Oak Parker had to be tempered by the realities of life and motherhood and a nascent small business meant finding ways to make intentional, deliberate community decisions that might not win me the Nobel Peace Prize. By liberating myself from the need to save the world, I think I’ve made our little world just a little better.
And so, I thought local. Really local. I read in Kiwi magazine moons ago about a group of moms who exchange meals. Once a month they each cook enough for their four families. A Herculean effort one night yields three nights of freedom. Now, like I said, I’m about community. But that’s a lot of cooking. Like four roast chickens? Yikes.
I thought about how I could do this on a lazier scale and realized I could blame Chicago winters and a friend’s dietary preference to make a soup exchange. Who doesn’t love a warm soup on a cold wintry day (minus the fact that we basically lived in Miami this winter)? And, because one of our own is vegan, we thought it would be a good opportunity for all of us to eat extra healthy once a week.
Four families have now been working on a neighborly soup exchange (here, not just the moms make the soup). Ideally, once a month we each make a gigantic batch of soup, usually doubling a recipe for the four families (8 parents, six soup-eating kids under the age of five, and our babe who is a total crapshoot food wise). We’ve had Moroccan, we’ve had Bittman inspired, we’ve even had broccoli cheddar because when the vegans are away the omnivores, well, we eat cheese.
It’s an easily replicable way to nourish your belly and your community. It’s an easy way to get to know some neighbors if you’ve been hoping to. It’s an easy way to get some seriously tasty soup.
The rules are simple: A family claims a week. A reusable jar/container is dropped off or picked up. A soup is made. Then, it is delivered. Sometimes desserts or fresh baked bread accompany said soup. We all tell each other we’re amazing cooks. Many smiles happen. It’s a pretty sweet deal.
We fell off the wagon after travels and the rich lives we all enjoy got extra rich. But the nice part of these grass roots efforts is that you can just shrug and reboot. A recent batch of sweet potato and black bean chili might have gotten us back on track, even after I botched it three separate times. Perhaps this public declaration of soup will, too, because I’m already dreaming about a gazpacho exchange for summer.