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Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 24, 2011

Soup's on

Midtown 'soup group' gathering builds neighborliness, fun over food

by Sue Dremann

Palo Alto resident Marina Rose stirred the two big pots of soup in her Midtown kitchen, the aroma mingling with laughter of about two dozen neighbors milling about her home near Hoover Park on Friday, June 17.

Over bowls of steaming pea soup and corn and quinoa soup, members of Midtown's Soup Group gathered to share food, ideas and life stories, just as they have done each month for the past 2 1/2 years.

Soup, salad and wine. Neighborhood children playing together in the hallways and garden patio. The soup group is capturing something many residents say is missing from Palo Alto these days: a real sense of community, they said.

Rose ladled the chartreuse pea soup made from fresh English peas into bowls and passed them around. Optional additions included crème fraiche, mint leaves and chunks of ham. Everything is local and the vegetables come from the Palo Alto farmers market, she said.

When visitors arrive, some bring their own bowls or spoons, but this isn't a potluck. Only the host does the cooking. All that is required of guests is to show up, she said.

People say Palo Alto is a different place these days — less friendly and more disconnected, said Palo Alto Mayor Sid Espinosa, who attended the Friday gathering. But soup groups such as Midtown's could be just what anyone's grandmother would order for an ailing quality of life.

"People say there is not a sense of community. I tell them to do something about that. Here are people doing it right. With soup, it's so easy to do," he said.

It's a no-pressure affair that Rose's husband, David Hsiao, said is not "fancy schmancy."

"This is a great way to create a low bar of entry. Soup and salad is something almost everyone can eat," he said.

Sutida Majarone, a Thai native who moved to the neighborhood in March, had not eaten pea soup before, she said as she sampled the soup. Majarone has hosted the soup group, making spicy Thai soup for her guests, she said. Having a chance to share food and culture on a neighborhood level is appealing because in Thailand food is central and people eat 24 hours a day, she said.

As a new resident, having a monthly gathering place with neighbors also keeps relationships going beyond the cursory cup of sugar and sidewalk wave.

"The lifestyle is so busy here. This is a place where we just hang out, and this is so personal. I bring my son, and he gets to know all the neighborhood kids," she said.

Rose got the idea more than eight years ago after learning of a similar group in Woodside. At the time, she resided in Mountain View, and as a newcomer there, she reached out to single people through her church and yoga class to join for weekly soup gatherings, she said.

The gatherings developed into deep discussions as well as meal sharing, she said, and that aspect has also become part of Palo Alto's soup group.

Each month the soup dinner is hosted at a different home; the host chooses a topic, and for a short period after the meal, residents gather to discuss anything from the proposed waste-to-energy plant at Byxbee Park to electric vehicles, composting, safety and earthquake preparedness and Christmas caroling, she said.

Sometimes the discussions go deeper. "Check-ins" allow residents to discuss the big events in their lives.

"Those are the times when we really build depth of connection — hearing someone talk about a death in the family, a job search, struggles with infertility, issues around starting a nonprofit," she said.

Rohana Gunawardena, the neighborhood-preparedness block captain, organizes the gatherings. No two meetings are the same, with soup and salad as the constants, he said. In winter, the gatherings are in larger homes and in summer, at smaller ones where people can spill outside.

"Sometimes there's a deep discussion; sometimes it's been someone's birthday and we've had a cake for them," Gunawardena said. When people meet at his home, he will often choose emergency preparedness as the topic, he said.

Hsiao said he enjoys the mix of cultures, which span from Northern Europe to Southeast Asia.

"I like that it is meaningful for other people. We all know each other. It's easy, and it builds community," he said.

Espinosa recalled a Weekly story where neighbors saw a van in the driveway of a home and assumed the residents were moving. But the van belonged to burglars who emptied the house of its contents in plain sight, he said.

People on Palo Alto Online's discussion forum, Town Square, asked how something like this could happen in a community, he said.

"It really does make a difference in a neighborhood and a community and a city. ... A soup club ripples into safety and taking care of kids," he said.

A dozen people remained for the after-dinner discussion on Friday, and Rose, a chiropractor and nutritionist, began with nutrition and seasonal foods. Hsiao passed around a food wheel, to show foods that are seasonally available in the Bay Area.

The conversation morphed into organizing meals for an expectant mother on bed rest, finding Palo Alto restaurants and wine bars serving local products and keeping bees.

Maybe they would make a good burglary deterrent if one put a sign in the window: "Killer bees," someone said, to laughter, and the topic turned to summer and vacations.

"I'm so glad you're all here so you can look for the moving van if it comes to my house," a resident said. "And we're not moving."

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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