CUMBERLAND — Mary Jo Moore was the first one up. She lifted the lid off a pot and stirred the creamy soup steaming inside as she described the dish to the crowded kitchen.

“We brought a creamy garlic soup,” she said.

“When she says we brought soup, she means I carried it,” chimed in her husband, Steve, setting off a round of laughter.

The recipe came from one of Moore’s favorite cookbooks, “Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread” by Crescent Dragonwagon. The Inchelium garlic – an endangered heirloom variety that’s listed on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste – came from the farmers’ market. It’s relatively mild, which is a good thing because the soup contains 10 heads – not cloves, heads – of garlic.

Mary Jo Moore ladles out a serving of stracciatella, one of the evening’s offerings. Staff photos by Jill Brady

“It has less than one cup of cream in it,” Moore explained. “It’s creamy because of the garlic. All that garlic, first you cook it and then you food process it. It’s thick. And then it has vegetable broth, parsley, butter. It doesn’t have that many ingredients.”

On the side? Homemade croutons made from rosemary bread.

This was not a cooking class. It’s Soup Group, a soup-centric potluck dinner that met over Thanksgiving weekend at the home of Mary Gazda and Bill Smith. Every year, from October through March, the same five couples gather at one of their homes on a Sunday evening to share a warming bowl of homemade soup and news about their families. Four couples bring a pot of soup – usually with a bottle of wine – and the host couple supplies hors d’oeuvres, salad and dessert.

Gazda got the idea from a 2014 Yankee magazine story called “Soup Party” by Maine food writer Kathy Gunst. In the article, Gunst wrote about her own soup group that meets once a month, and all the fun they have visiting and sharing soups. It made Gazda think of her own longtime group of friends.

“When I read the article, I knew that these guys were all friends for a while and they would probably like to do it, but I wasn’t certain,” she said. “And I certainly thought that some would drop out.”

Five years later, the group is still going strong, and not one couple has dropped out.

Gunst has heard a lot of soup party stories since she turned that magazine article into the cookbook “Soup Swap,” published in 2016. She said in an email that the Cumberland group has “a VERY long track record” compared with others. (Gunst’s own group is still active after six years, although she no longer attends as often because she’s started traveling more in winter to visit her daughters.)

The members of the Cumberland Soup Group are linked together by their children and their lives in the small community about 20 minutes from Portland. Gazda and her husband moved to Maine 30 years ago from Cape Cod. They wrote an ad in search of families looking to swap child care. Jane McGraves answered. She said she and her husband, Ken Lloyd, didn’t really want to swap child care, “but let’s get together.”

“We’ve known most of these folks for at least 20-plus years, and some for 30,” Gazda said.

SOUP AND SLIPPERS

Mary Jo and Steve Moore now live in Harpswell, and Cindy and Bill Dexter moved to Portland, but that doesn’t get in the way of Soup Group. It’s a casual affair. Half the guests attend in their slippers. The evening begins with an appetizer spread, which in November included acorn squash roasted with olive oil and coated with a parmesan and herb blend, almonds, olives, sun-dried orange slices, a couple of different kinds of cheese, and smoked salmon. Guests chattered loudly, catching up on family news from the past month; the occasional pop of a cork from a wine or champagne bottle punctuated their conversations. The champagne was mixed with cranberry juice, and a few raw cranberries and a slice of lime floated in the glass, adding a festive touch.

Jane McGraves of Cumberland, Mary Jo Moore of Harpswell and Cindy Dexter of Portland visit at the home of Mary Gazda and Bill Smith while soups heat on the stove during their monthly Soup Group gathering. Staff photo by Jill Brady

Their children are now all grown, and when they hear their parents talk about going to Soup Group, they “just think it’s a hoot,” Gazda said.

“Cindy and Bill have a son,” she said, “and every time they mention they’re going to Soup Group, he laughs. He thinks it’s just the funniest thing.”

When it comes time to eat dinner, each couple “introduces” their soup, “and we rib each other,” Smith said. Usually there are four soups, but in November, there were only three – one couple, David Gulick and Maria Crouch, were out sick. After Mary Jo Moore talked about her creamy garlic soup, Cindy Dexter introduced her stracciatella, an Italian soup made with broth, egg, Parmesan and spinach that is sometimes called Italian egg drop soup. Dexter has been working her way through Gunst’s “Soup Swap” cookbook – this is her sixth soup from the book – and has been (somewhat humorously) worrying over the lack of “threads” in the soup after she mixed in the egg and Parmesan during the appetizer hour.

“I think everyone knows what’s in that pot at this point,” she said dryly.

“Well, tell us,” another guest replied.

“Chicken broth with clumps, not strands, of egg. And spinach,” she said, resulting in another outbreak of laughter in the kitchen.

Her husband, Bill, boldly came to her defense: “Cindy put a lot of effort into that stock.” (Perfect eggy threads or not, the soup was delicious.)

The third soup was haddock chowder made by Ken Lloyd.

“Jane’s the cook, and she’s really good at it,” he said. “This is the one thing I do. I call it my one-trick pony soup.”

Before moving into the dining room, each guest grabbed a small “tasting bowl” and chose which soup they wanted to try first. They moved through dinner at their own pace, getting up from the dining room table to dish up another soup after they had finished the last one. Gazda made a wedge salad and, for dessert, served an apple pie made with local apples.

Ken Lloyd’s “one-trick pony” haddock chowder. The Soup Group works like this: Five couples gather at one of their homes one evening a month. Four couples bring a pot of soup – usually with a bottle of wine – and the host couple supplies hors d’oeuvres, salad and dessert. Staff photo by Jill Brady

SUCCESSES AND SOLID CLUMPS

At the end of the evening, the couples split up the leftovers and planned to eat them for lunch over the next two or three days.

“You go and have a great time, and you come away having eaten way too much,” Smith said of the Soup Group nights. “Soup is so filling, right? (The group has) just really gotten better and better. People get comfortable and skilled making soup.”

Gazda tends to make creamy soups, like the pumpkin soup she made not long ago that brought raves. Lloyd and his wife like making soups with Thai flavors.

“I try to make something different (every time),” Cindy Dexter said, “but I’ve totally lost track. We regret not keeping a journal.”

When there are successes, they share recipes, or hope that the star soup makes a return appearance at a future Soup Group. When there are disasters, they have fun with it.

“I’m 62 years old, and I’ve been making soups my whole life,” Cindy Dexter said. “But I made this soup I had made before, and I put the pasta in it in the morning, and I brought it here and you guys were so nice. I lifted the lid and it was a solid clump of macaroni with a little bit of tomato around it.”

“It was ravioli,” someone helpfully corrects.

“It was ravioli,” Dexter repeated. “See? You remember it.”

When the evening was over, there was only one thing left to say. Bill Dexter, worried about their children’s reaction to this story, turned to the writer in the room, smiled sheepishly, and asked:

“Can you make us sound hip?”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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