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Credit: Joshua Huston
personal essay

The Soup Queen of Seattle on Beans, the Pandemic, and Feeding Her Community

updated Oct 3, 2020
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I run an underground soup club in Seattle, which sounds dangerous and racy, but really just means I make and deliver vegan soup to my friends’ porches every week during the rainy months of winter. If you’re wondering if I just woke up one day and decided to do it, that’s pretty close. See, I had experienced a kind of soup miracle. It’s a long story, but people I didn’t really know left soup on my doorstep when I was diagnosed with a deadly brain cancer and was faced with terrible odds. Somehow I survived; even my doctors still don’t quite know why. So now I believe in soup magic. And community. That’s how I started to make vegan soup for my friends every week. 

But this isn’t that story.

This is the story of how I found myself, the soup queen of my corner of Seattle, tumbling down from my throne in a wild chase for beans. After two years of running my soup club, I’d learned where to find enormous bags of beans and, until March of this year, thought that my spots were secret (and, more specifically, that I was the only home cook silly enough to need them). 

My soups are intended as healthful, filling meals, so most of them contain beans. There is an Excel document involved in the tracking of the weekly order of the soups — essentially, the table of contents for the cookbook I was writing about my recipes that I had begun to develop the previous year — for the 32 consecutive weeks I had planned to run the club.

Support Caroline’s cookbook on Kickstarter: Soup Club Cookbook

A normal soup week for me, before our world fell apart, involved a prescribed and fairly mechanical schedule of shopping, prepping, and cooking that spanned over the latter part of a week. I would waltz into my favorite store and nod to the manager who had taken to asking me what I was making that week with a kind of small-town charm. The market would be empty, apart from me and, inevitably, a guy rushing around with a platform truck full of gallons of soy sauce and trash bags. As with each of my routine stores, I would walk through it purposefully, armed with a distinct list of what to buy, having memorized its aisles. 

This particular restaurant supply store in the suburbs of Seattle was always my go-to spot for beans. The shelves were piled high with 25-pound burlap and kraft feed-style bags that never diminished; it was normal for me to go through a bag a week. My soup schedule of making 65 quarts a week was locked in weeks in advance based on the consistent availability of the beans and grains on the shelves of this very store. Obviously, I understood that beans were important to my whole working system, but I didn’t quite realize just how important they were until the bags began to mysteriously vanish. I had only heard the word “coronavirus” mentioned a few times when I started to observe small changes in my routine.

I watched the bags disappear from the shelves, at first with amusement trying to imagine faceless neighbors with pantries overflowing with lentils and black beans, then with true panic one fateful day when I realized the magnitude of what was happening to the demand for these items.

After dinner that night, I snatched the keys to our car and sped off to the suburbs, charged with a strange excitement ahead of my bean-hunting quest. I was determined to buy all the beans I could for the months ahead. Dusty outlines were painted on the shelves where bags of beans had been, as if I had arrived too late to the scene of a crime. Black beans: gone. Lentils and rice of any sort: gone. I almost wept when I saw a single bag high on a shelf. I had somehow discovered a crack in the fabric of reality, perhaps, and reached directly into destiny itself, sliding the sack toward me so I could read the label. My face immediately twisted into a frown as I read the words “15-bean soup mix.” I uttered profanities and cast it back on the shelf, angry at the bag of nonsense beans for briefly fooling me into thinking it could have been a keen find. 

I went to more stores and scoured their shelves. I laughed maniacally when I discovered a bulk hopper teeming with black beans bearing the label “turtle beans,” and proceeded to shovel its contents into a succession of flimsy produce bags like some sort of greedy pirate. High on adrenaline, I swiveled around to do the same for tricolor quinoa and sorghum. I wheeled my cart, mounded with teetering bags of beans and grains, to the checkout with a sense of deep salvation. 

Being at the earliest epicenter of coronavirus, as stores were first wiped clean of supplies, forced me to challenge my creativity. I had to return to my precious Excel spreadsheet and edit the lineup I’d obsessed over for many previous months. I searched the internet for beans. A small window at the bottom of the screen hinted at the misfit beans that clearly no one else wanted, sensing my utter desperation. This is how I came to have boxes upon boxes of pigeon peas and pink beans mailed to me from across the country; this is also how they ended up in my cookbook.

After a few more rounds of impulse online bean shopping, I had become the worst caricature of the panicky pandemic hoarder, except my weakness wasn’t toilet paper. There wasn’t enough room in my house to store my loot, so bags of beans poked out from underneath odd pieces of furniture, often tripping my tolerant husband. 

But it was all worth it for my soup club. My community of friends-turned-soup-nerds became the only meaningful connection any of us had. My relationship to soup began when neighbors, then strangers, brought me soup when I was very sick and alone; it healed me. Now I was making soup for these same neighbors, pouring my gratitude and joy into it, and dropping it on their porches full of the same wishes of health and community. I ran the club an extra month last spring — all the way until June — so I could use the surplus beans I hid around the house. And yet I still ended up with awkward bags of remnant beans.

When faced with what to do with the remaining beans, I recalled that bag of dejected bean soup mix and laughed at myself. It was the perfect solution, I thought, almost angry at that bag of beans once again; this time for its smugness. 

I sat down and researched the brand, attempting to glean what its signature soup is supposed to taste like from the gibberish on its packet of enclosed seasoning. So I wrote a recipe I knew I could never use in the cookbook — as I don’t call for branded products as a general rule — for my 15-Bean Soup. I went back to that same store from months before, and with a gloved hand actually reached for what probably was the very same bag of beans. Instead of casting it aside in disgust, I held it as if shaking hands after surrendering a battle: with great respect to a dogged opponent. 

Credit: Caroline Wright

In bringing the bag of beans home and calculating its contents in an attempt to recreate the soup recipe on the side of the bag, my soup lady lessons had taken on a new shade of combined humility and silliness. I had become determined to make a 15-bean soup I liked. (In fact, it ended up being one of the very favorite soups of the year, my members told me, including that of my choosy parents.) This soup, it turned out, held echoes of my first encounter with soup magic. As I tinkered with the recipe, it became a kind of symbol of the club itself in my mind: that odd bits, even in the midst of chaos, can provide comfort and healing when shared with friends.

Being a soup queen during the start of the coronavirus pandemic taught me a few surprising lessons: that bean farmers sometimes have websites to sell directly to cooks, how to cook from a larder of ingredients no one wanted to take home, and how a bag of lonesome beans might actually come back to save the day.

Get the recipe: 15-Bean Soup