The members of the Soup Squad started arriving well before the appointed hour on a recent Wednesday afternoon. When you live in an assisted-living facility, it takes time to assemble 13 people around a long table. Someone has to find a place for all the walkers and wheelchairs. Just getting there, moving a chair, and sitting down takes more time than younger people can imagine.
But soup and time have a forgiving relationship, and that may be part of the appeal of the Squad, a group at Brandywine Living at Dresher Estates that makes huge pots of soup once a month for other seniors who need meals delivered to their homes.
Soup is not a soufflé. Split-second timing rarely matters. If the 87-year-old on one end of the table chops more slowly than the 104-year-old in the middle, so be it. There’s always something else to slice, and it doesn’t matter that much when a particular veggie lands in the pot. If the 72-year-old can’t chop at all, but can still push peas out of a pod ever so carefully, that’s OK. It will still taste good.
All the while, these aging cooks can talk and remember meals and vegetable gardens from other eras. They can inhale the intoxicating scent of frying onions and garlic, knowing it will soon waft far down the corridors and tease their fellow residents. They can take pride in knowing they can help someone else even if they sometimes need help themselves.
"I like being here with all the women," said Birdie Dash, the 104-year-old, before the group's lone male participant that afternoon arrived. Dash, a petite woman with surprisingly dark hair, proved to be one of the Squad's more efficient choppers. She worked a solid 90 minutes, although she threatened to take a break about midway.
"I like the idea that we're helping out somehow or other," she said.
Evelyn Schwedock, the 87-year-old, had a little more trouble wielding her knife, but the table laden with fresh vegetables brought back memories of growing up in a small town where a farmer would visit her house with his produce. She came mostly for the socializing.
"The people are great," she said, "and it's a lot of fun to get together."
The Squad’s efforts would be packed into 112 pint-size containers the next day and taken to KleinLife, a community center in Northeast Philadelphia, and then delivered to clients of the center’s Cook for a Friend program. The soup counts as a supplemental vegetable and is very popular among the 300 seniors who receive the meals, said John Eskate, director of community services at KleinLife and of RSVP Philadelphia, its senior volunteer program.
"Our clients really look forward to the soup," he said.
The meals themselves are supplied by 15 to 20 cooking groups based in synagogues, Rotary and Odd Fellow chapters, and student groups. Dresher is currently the only soup squad based in a senior living facility.
Helping others has gotten greater emphasis in senior communities as experts on aging have touted the value of having a sense of purpose in late life and of avoiding loneliness. Volunteering is a social activity. It gives older people a chance to help others even while they are themselves feeling more vulnerable. Many programs also foster intergenerational relationships, another plus for elders at risk for isolation.
Later this summer, the Dresher Estates group will work with students from Melrose Park’s Wyncote Academy on the Empty Bowls project, making bowls that will then be filled with donated soup.
At Presby’s Inspired Life at Rydal Park, residents are “reading buddies” at schools and volunteer at hospitals and museums. They helped collect more than 875 pounds of food for the Interfaith Food Cupboard in Roslyn.
And residents of the Kendal-Crosslands Communities in Kennett Square help immigrants improve their English skills. More than 100 have trained to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) and 52 are still active, said Betty Warner, who helps organize the project. Volunteers have also worked on a storytelling project with Lincoln University students. Warner guesses that at least 20 percent of residents are involved in volunteering. Engagement or activism is a “Kendal value,” she said. New residents are “strongly encouraged” to be involved.
The Soup Squad idea came to Dresher Estates through Rachel Kaufman Schatz, the facility’s “escapades producer.” She’s what most places call an activities director. She heard about it through her son, now a Temple University junior, who volunteered with Eskate’s program at KleinLife. Three summers ago, she tried making soup with her residents, many of whom had not cooked for years.
“They loved it,” she said.
The group, which often numbers 15 to 20, is too big to cook in the Dresher Estates kitchen, so they use the activity room. The soup goes into 32-quart pots heated on a butane camp stove.
The soup is always vegetarian, in deference to kosher recipients, as Kaufman Schatz has no way of knowing whether there will be meat or dairy in their meals. She uses only a little salt. The squad has made split pea, butternut squash, cabbage, and mushroom barley soups and borscht, never repeating a recipe. In truth, she takes liberties with recipes.
“I kind of cook like my grandmother,” she said. “There’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. There’s a lot of love in our soup, but it always turns out.”
On that recent Wednesday, Kaufman Schatz loosely followed a recipe for Mediterranean vegetable soup (see below). To get 100 servings, she multiplies the amounts in the recipe by 12.5. She had piled the veggies on a table laden so heavily it could easily have been at a farm market. There were a dozen ears of corn, plus baskets of green beans, yellow onions, celery, carrots, parsley, tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, and English peas in the pod. The garlic came from a jar, pre-peeled and chopped, and Kaufman Schatz used Knorr vegetable base.
At 1:30, she fired up the troops, who were by then clad in red aprons and vinyl gloves.
“All right, ladies, are you ready?” she asked. “We are going to make vegetable soup today. It’s healthy. It’s comforting, and it’s a thousand times better than what you can get in a can.” She listed the ingredients. The peas in the pod were a surprise. “Oh wow,” one cook exclaimed. The onions, on the other hand, were not welcomed.
“I wish they didn’t give us onions,” Dash groused. “I end up crying.” She lobbied for adding them last, but Kaufman Schatz insisted, quite rightly, that they had to go in first. Dash did not cry. She tackled her onion quickly and efficiently. While some others were still peeling, she sliced hers in half, laid each half flat and diced. Then she sliced carrots. She was on to celery while some were still on their onion.
Kaufman Schatz, who was in constant motion, made sure that everyone was doing something they could handle.
The big excitement of the afternoon was that Rubey Custus, 91, found a live caterpillar in a pea pod. She wasn't too happy about it, but everybody else took it in stride. The ladies named him Hank, but they were not sentimental. They agreed he should eventually be food for the birds outside.
Miraculously, they finished chopping the mountain of produce a little after 3 p.m., just as the 3:15 group that does beading was pressing into the room. Kaufman Schatz, who had been collecting vegetables as fast as her Squad could cut, dumped the last bowls of ingredients into the nearly full pot. They would cook for another hour while the beading class worked away.
The next morning, Kaufman Schatz filled KleinLife’s containers with chilled soup, but saved some for her workers.
"Occasionally," said Suzi Kaurman, 81, "the soup smells so good that we show up the next morning with soup bowls."
Barbara Miller Schatz Lipsen, 83, a Dresher Estates resident who happens to be Kaufman Schatz’s mother-in-law, wishes she could eat more of the Soup Squad’s soup. “We make better soup than they make for us,” she said.
Kaufman Schatz’s recipe for Mediterranean Vegetable Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups peeled and chopped carrots (about 5)
1 ¼ cups chopped celery (about 3 stalks)
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 cans of vegetable broth
4 cups diced fresh or canned tomatoes
3 cups diced potatoes (about 3)
1 ½ cups fresh or frozen string beans
1 ¼ cups fresh or frozen corn
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
⅓ cup chopped fresh parsley
⅓ cup chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Lots of Love!
This recipe makes 8 servings.
Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium high heat.
Add onion and garlic and sauté for about 5 minutes
Add carrots and celery, add broth, add all of the other ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.