Soup and Bread

Art and Soup, or Derrida Does Improv

“So your soup thing … is it, like, an art project?”

I’m in New York for the week and this question, asked by a kind stranger, cracked me up – because for the last month or so I’ve been asking myself the same thing. And trying, and mostly failing, to come up with a coherent answer.

A few weeks ago, in early May, I walked up Noble Street to Eric May’s Roots & Culture gallery for the long-overdue relaunch of Sunday Soup Chicago. The subject of chapter 5 of the Soup & Bread Cookbook, Sunday Soup is a meal project/fundraiser/art experience designed to raise small nuggets of grant money for artists. The brainchild of the Chicago art collective InCUBATE, the model has since spread around the world: There are Sunday Soup related projects in Seattle, Portland, Grand Rapids, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Ukraine. But the Chicago edition has been on hiatus since 2008, when co-founder Ben Schaafsma died after being hit by a cab in New York City.

On this new first Sunday, We angled ourselves onto benches around long tables set with wildflowers. We cozied up to our neighbors, and we ate tangles of spring greens and bowls of white bean soup. InCUBATE’s Abigail Satinsky (who’s also the director of programming at ThreeWalls) read from Allan Kaprow’s “The Meaning of Life.” Matias Viegener, of the Los Angeles-based collective Fallen Fruit, in town for a symposium at the U. of C., urged us to honor “the hospitality of the natural world.” Anne Elizabeth Moore, one of the first artists to receive a Sunday Soup grant, memorialized Schaafsma, whose late-night emails about soup she remembers as “a gesture of love and openness from someone I did not know.” It was this initial soup grant, she added, that funded the work that led her to Cambodia, and to a Fulbright fellowship. By then everyone was crying. And then we had dessert.

A year and whatever ago, when I first talked to Abby and Bryce Dwyer, I was impressed and excited by the way they were able to articulate the subterranean connections between soup and art and hospitality and community. But though I’ve sometimes appropriated their language to describe what we’re up to at the Hideout and elsewhere, I’ve never really defined Soup & Bread as “art,” or myself as an artist. I’m not fluent in the language – even the language as accommodating as that swirling around experiential art of the everyday — and I’m OK with that. But lately I’ve been forced to wonder: If Soup & Bread isn’t art … what is it?

A few days before Sunday Soup I’d been part of an event at the University of Chicago’s brand-new Logan Center for the Arts. “Of Hospitality,” it was called – a symposium inspired by Derrida’s challenge/exhortation to “say yes to who or what turns up” (a challenge embraced, to perhaps baser effect, by legions of improv students as well). Soup & Bread was invited to provide the evening meal after a day of panel discussions and presentations and, yeah, Derrida.

The day was organized by the Smart Museum in conjunction with its exhibit Feast (which closes this Sunday). Just as its subtitle, “Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,” is cribbed from the Christian pracitce of “radical hospitality” in welcoming any and all who present themselves at church, the symposium hoped to interrogate the multiple meanings of “hospitality” in art and culture. “What’s at stake,” queried the program note, “when cultural practitioners embrace hospitality as a theoretical framework for day-to-day activity?”

All of this sounded neat enough in theory, and I did enjoy the prickly, fun discussion at one point about the function of the “bad host” – of how say “no” to who or what turns up and how that plays with notions of hospitality (something you run up against a lot behind a bar) — but in practice I have to confess what I mostly got out of this event was insight into the academic-panel-discussion format as a means of sucking the life out of all it touches – even something as vital as sharing food with other people.

Is it graceless to say I was weirdly invigorated when my portion of this program did not exactly go off as planned? I set up in the lobby of the Logan Center, but while visiting artists downed vodka infusions in the lecture hall below, stretching the cocktail hour far beyond its given 15 minutes, the waiting soup was stalked, eyeballed, and ultimately devoured by performers from the adjacent theater on their dinner break and a pack of hungry undergrads prepping for a nighttime fashion show. It was a little chaotic. I explained myself, our presence, over and over again. I fretted that there would be no soup left over when the vodka ran out. But … what better way to practice hospitality in the realm of art and culture?

Though there was in fact soup left – and though I’m grateful to the Smart Museum for inviting me to participate — I couldn’t help feeling at odd angles to this polished scenario. I was serving soup and it was messy. My shoes hurt. Was I an artist or a cafeteria-line worker? Why was I the only person who didn’t get a bio in the program?

In this frame of mind, the next night, I arrived at Sunday Soup. I was having an identity crisis. I felt awkward. Undertheorized. I’m a writer, a journalist with a cookbook. It’s already absurd. Now I’m supposed to be an artist? Right.

But here, in this low-key space, where the line for the bathroom ran into the line for the bar, theory and practice found an easy tonal center, and by the time last of the strawberry-rhubarb crumble had been scarfed up, my pathetic neuroses had been banished. Even though I found out later that there was a PYTHON loose in the basement that night – a fact I would have found profoundly inhospitable had I known about it – Sunday Soup was a welcoming, thoughtful experience, more intentional than a plain old dinner party but something far cozier than a panel discussion. It was – perfect.

Last year, when I was sweating out the essays that are the connective tissue of the Soup & Bread Cookbook, the idea was to try and articulate the common space that soup can create. I was embarrassed by claims that the idea behind Soup & Bread was something novel, and I wanted to put it in context, in the good company of community soup suppers across the map. But I don’t know that I really got to squish that common ground around between my toes until that long weekend, which ended with another roundtable-type deal – this one a “salon” at ThreeWalls featuring a by now-familiar cast of characters from the weekend’s intersection of art and food. That was pretty fun – there was cake, and tallboys of High Life – and even though I somehow backed myself into the “I’m not an artist” corner yet again that night in (mock) self-defense, leery of seeming too self-serious (something I really need to get better at),  I left closer to the cusp of clarity.

That same week I had wrapped up an article about Soup & Bread for an unusual outlet: The Christian Century, a mainline Protestant magazine that was one of the first outlets to publish Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963. An editor (and fellow community food freak) from the Century encouraged me to contribute something, so I elbowed and clawed and spat out a personal essay full of embarrassing personal detail about how Soup & Bread changed my life.

The embarrassing personal stuff, thankfully, got cut in rewrite. But the nugget gleaned from what remained was sparkly enough that I kept turning it over, regarding its many sides, even after I met my deadline.  Namely: That one person’s soup may be another’s art. His politics. Her ministry. And while lately, I’m hung up on language – these vocabularies that describe our path through the world; the words that give weight to our flyaway pursuits – I’m becoming less concerned about finding a common tongue than about ensuring we just keep talking — about hospitality, about community, about hunger in both its literal and symbolic manifestations. Does it really matter that we’re using different words to describe a fundamentally common purpose?

A woman in Portland, Oregon, who is writing a book about community soup dinners, interviewed me recently. And I’m not too proud to say my first reaction when she contacted me was, “Hey, waitaminnit! That’s my book!” But I got over that — and as she and I talked I came back again to the idea of openness that, to me, is central to Soup & Bread.

I’ve always believed that Soup & Bread was an open source idea – a framework available for anyone to adapt at will. And, while over the last year in particular I’ve been encouraged to professionalize Soup & Bread  — to incorporate as a 501 C-3; or shape up as some sort of legitimate social enterprise. I’ve resisted this. I thought I was just lazy. Now I’m surer this is not the best path.

The amateurishness of Soup & Bread  — its lack of definition; its blurry brand identity – may well be what keeps it nimble; able to reinvent itself week after week and able to create space for people to find in it what they need.

What makes Soup & Bread meaningful to the hundreds of people who have shared soup from our Crock-Pots may just be its democratic essence — its capacity to encompass a plurality of ideas and expectations. By being not-quite ministry; not-quite politics; not-quite social service; not-quite art, Soup & Bread may allow all of the above to happen at once. By resisting the act of naming, I – along with everyone who participates – am able to re-create, and redefine the act of sharing soup with strangers over and over again, transforming the plain moment of a meal into something vital and alive.

All of which is to say: Soup & Bread is on vacation! We’ve got events planned this summer for Washington Island and Iowa City, and plans are afoot for a special event or two in the fall. But, for now, we’re going to lie low and explore these intriguing cracks between art and politics and service. Hopefully, we can reinvent ourselves yet again, and come back next winter with something fresh on the table. We’re open to suggestions.

Posted: Friday Jun 8,2012 08:26 AM In Soup Miscellany, Soup Wrapup

4 Comments

  1. MrJM
    June 8, 2012

    “So your soup thing … is it, like, an art project?”

    The Hideout events I’ve attended got me hoping this would develop into some kind of 21st century humanist religion.

    — MrJM

  2. Dmitry Samarov
    June 8, 2012

    They call people like Britney Spears “artist.” Don’t be an artist, just keep doing what you’re doing…

  3. Cinnamon
    June 8, 2012

    Thank you for this! Seriously! I got into a conversation with someone at the last one I attended who asked if it was part of a political agenda. And I told him that “Soup is love. If you love politics, then it is political. If you just love soup, then it is just soup.” He thought it was a blow-off answer, which was not my intention. But I couldn’t answer it better without putting my own agenda on it and I had no way of knowing if my agenda was anywhere close to yours. So after reading this, I think my answer wasn’t far off base.

    And if you’ve never been to Hamburg Inn in Iowa City, you must go there and eat a pie shake! A vanilla milkshake with a piece of pie (sometimes housemade) thrown in and whirred up. I’ve driven to Iowa City just to get one, they’re THAT good

  4. Martha
    June 10, 2012

    Thanks so much, everyone, for your thoughtful comments! I’m out of town and have been bad about checking up on this page, so I apologize if your thoughts lingered in unapproved limbo for long. Cinnamon: You’re correct. Your answer is as close to base as the ones I usually give. Also: Pie shake!?! It’s now on the itinerary.

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