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  1. Health

Community soup night: Make a kettle, and you have a party

Pumpkins on porches, lower humidity and earlier sunsets can mean only one thing — it's fall. For many of us, it's also time to put soup back on the menu, even if daytime highs still suggest summer.

Soup can be delicious and nutritious when filled with fiber-rich vegetables, beans and whole grains, with no fat or just a little. Research even suggests soup may help with weight control by filling you up before a meal so you eat less of the higher-calorie offerings.

Soup can be quick and easy to fix and relatively inexpensive when made with leftovers in the fridge, canned goods from the pantry and a carton of stock. Add a few sprigs of herbs from your patio pots and you're really cooking.

But soup can also be healing in ways you may not have imagined. Maggie Stuckey explains how in her new book, Soup Night: Recipes for Creating Community Around a Pot of Soup (Storey Publishing). "I really think soup is magical," said Stuckey, who lives in Portland, Ore., and spoke with the Times recently by phone.

Stuckey saw her first soup night a few years ago in her brother's northeast Oregon community. On the appointed night and hour, doors opened up and down the street and people came out in unison, each with a bowl in one hand and a spoon in a pocket. They gathered in the host's house, where two pots of soup bubbled — one vegetarian, one not. They filled their bowls, found a seat and reconnected with friends and warmly greeted newcomers.

The idea started with a single mom who wanted her kids to grow up where people knew one another and didn't have to be afraid in their own neighborhood. Now it's a monthly gathering, with hosting duties rotating among households. Guests also might tote along a loaf of bread, a birthday cake to share, or a bottle of vino and glasses.

Without soup night, Stuckey said, these folks probably wouldn't have crossed paths. But now people of all backgrounds and ages are friends. They watch out for one another and pitch in to help whenever it's needed.

"One of the dads said the most beautiful thing to me," Stuckey remembers. "He said, 'Our soup night is really for the kids, and they don't even know it yet. What they're seeing is adults working together cooperatively, and that's a wonderful thing to grow up with.' "

Equally important are the social connections the soup eaters make, especially those who otherwise might be isolated. Stuckey looked into the scientific research and learned that people who have few relationships with others are more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and dementia. "Isolation makes you sick," she said. "It can be worse for you than smoking and obesity. It can set you up for an early death."

So sharing a pot of soup can be both spiritually and physically therapeutic.

If starting your own community soup night sounds appealing, Stuckey's book is a veritable blueprint, with recipes for soups (plus salads and a few desserts) as well as stories and tips from the 30 other groups she found across the country that hold similar gatherings.

Here are some recipes to help you get started. Remember, one of the great things about soup is that it's very forgiving. If you don't like a particular ingredient, just leave it out or substitute whatever you prefer. The point of soup night is fun and fellowship — and the chef, too, ought to enjoy everything about it.