After run across U.S., Austinite brings community together through soup

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After run across U.S., Austinite brings community together through soup

Katie Visco is a running, biking, soup-making exclamation mark.

I've known a lot of high-energy people, but few with as much boundless energy to do new things, meet new people and make the world a better place.

It sounds cheesy until you find out that when the bubbly, offbeat Illinois native was just 23, she ran from Boston to San Diego, becoming the second-youngest person to complete the 3,100-mile journey. It took her nine months, and then she spent another six months giving motivational speeches to groups of kids, adults, runners, walkers, anyone who would listen to her talk about why they should find something that they love and let that passion determine the course of their lives.

Visco, who hitchhiked and biked her way to Austin in 2011, still runs and bikes just about everywhere, but another passion is driving her most recent efforts: soup.

Before her epic run, Visco was an AmeriCorps volunteer in Boston, living off a small stipend and in a place where she'd never lived before. With little money but a desire to meet new people and foster community in her new home, she started hosting monthly soup parties that anyone could attend. She told just about everyone she met: "Come have soup, build community and bring a bowl." And to her surprise, people of all stripes showed up, month after month, bowl in hand.

She quickly realized how much people were craving an excuse to get together, and soup seemed to be the perfect conduit. "We aren't vulnerable enough to say, ‘I need you,'" she says. "We're losing that."

After a hiatus from her life-changing run, she revived the soup parties with renewed fervor. "It's my calling in this world to bring forth this love of community and to bring people together," she says. "Food is just one way to do so."

Despite all the work she'd done in Boston, Austin — "a mecca of quirkiness and of running and of movement and spirit," she says — was calling. Early last year, she hitchhiked and biked her way to Austin (she has no desire to own a car) and quickly started hosting soup parties again.

She literally went door-to-door in Travis Heights, inviting people to the party and asking if they wanted to contribute ingredients for the soup. "What better way to really build the soup than to gather the ingredients from the community," she says. "They gave me onions from their garden, a dash of tarragon from their pantry. Then they came ... and could taste the ingredients they donated. It was so cool."

Last week, at a house in the sticks of West Lake Hills, guest gathered for Visco's monthly soup party, and I found out what draws people from across the city to eat soup on an already warm July night.

First, the soup: Ten pots of fragrant, seasonal soups including Thai chicken, peach gazpacho and okra tomato. Visco usually makes at least a few of the soups, but others come from guests such as Megan Olson and Lanis Young, who brought my two favorite soups: chile minestrone and raw carrot ginger, respectively (recipes at right). (I had a few pounds of peaches that needed to be eaten, so I brought a decidedly non-soup: cobbler. No one seemed to mind.)

Second, the people: It can be intimidating to walk up to strangers at a party and strike up a conversation but not when everyone at the party came with the intention of meeting new people.

"It's a random group of people coming together to share something friendly," says laid-back host Jeff Taylor, who was hosting for the first time. "There's no common thread other than the goodness of people coming together, over soup, of all things."

Conversations continued long after the soup ran out, and even Taylor said he was surprised at how well the event seemed to go: "It's like she just materialized this thing out of nowhere."

Visco's love for soup and community doesn't stop with these parties. In the past year, she's combined her passion for soup and cycling in a soup delivery business called Hot Love.

Unlike the Soup Peddler, a meal delivery business that started with owner David Ansel delivering soup by bike about 10 years ago (he's since ditched the bikes and now delivers by refrigerated truck), Visco's business is more akin to a flower delivery service.

A friend or family member orders a soup delivery for someone else and a customized message to go with it. Visco will sing, rap, dance, jump around, read a poem, stand on her head — whatever it takes to put a smile on the face of the person receiving the "souprise." She accepts donations only and will deliver, by bike, anywhere in the city. (Within a few weeks, she'll be launching an official website, but for now, you can search "Hot Love Soup" on Facebook or email Visco to order.)

"I'm delivering love and joy and connectivity," she says. "It is really about brightening someone's day today, telling someone that you love them. I will go to the ends of the earth to brighten someone's day."

She was going to take off on another months-long run, attempting to run across all 50 states, but she's decided to channel her energy into soup efforts in Austin. "I'm in that searching phase of my mid-20s," she says. "Soup is what I am being called to do. It's OK to move from passion to passion. Right now, I feel the calling to build community here in Austin through something as simple as soup and eye contact."

The next soup party is Aug. 19, and Visco will post the location and details on Facebook. To find out more, you can email her at katie.visco@gmail.com or connect with her on Facebook.

Stay up-to-date with the latest food news by following food writer Addie Broyles on Twitter (@broylesa) or on her Relish Austin blog, austin360.com/relishaustin. Contact Addie at 912-2504 or abroyles@statesman.com.

Cucumber Avocado Dill Soup

Visco says that love and intention, though hard to quantify, are the most important ingredients in a soup. This cold soup is perfect for a summer party and is best eaten the day you make it.

1 bunch fresh dill

4 cucumbers (3 peeled, 1 with skin)

2 small avocados

3 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut water

1 tsp. Himalayan pink sea salt

2 tsp. extra virgin organic olive oil

2 handfuls chopped fresh parsley

Juice of half a lemon or lime (optional)

Place all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Makes about two quarts.

— Katie Visco

Carrot Ginger Soup

Megan Olson, a server at Blue Dahlia Bistro in East Austin, met Visco while working at a coffee shop. "She was the most joyful, outgoing person ever," Olson says. Visco invited her to the next soup party, and Olson says she was surprised to find a "good people from all walks of life" whose only common interest was meeting other people. That was a year ago, and Olson has been going to the soup parties almost every month since. "Katie's always happy. She brings a happiness to other people, and she always brightens the room." Olson brought this raw carrot ginger soup, which was one of my favorites at last week's party. She says that though the soup is simple, you really need a nice blender or food processor if you want a smooth consistency. Add the curry and chili powders slowly. You can always add more, but you can't take it away once you've put it in.

8 carrots

1 1/4-inch ginger root

2 cups fresh squeezed orange juice

2 large garlic cloves

3/4 cup raw cashews

Curry powder, to taste

Chili powder, to taste

A little cinnamon

1 1/2 red onion

Juice from one lemon (optional)

Handful of cashews (optional)

Blended ingredients together in a blender or food processor. Serve immediately.

— Megan Olson

Chili Minestrone

Lanis Young, who moved to Austin about a year ago, met Visco at Womyn's Wellness, another one of Visco's community-building events, which features a potluck and inspiring panelists. Young, who goes by Zany, says that in addition to helping her grow her social circle, Visco's events inspire her to find ways to give back to her community and meet others with similar goals. "Food helps people make those connections," she says.

1 (14 1/2-oz.) can diced tomatoes with mild green chilies

1 (16-oz.) can ranchero beans

1 cup onions, chopped

3 cups frozen mixed vegetables (or fresh, if desired)

1/2 cup celery, chopped

2 cups low-sodium tomato juice

3 cups water

2 tsp. sugar

2 tsp. lime juice

1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp. chili powder

1/2 tsp. Tony Chachere's More Spice Creole Seasoning (or other seasoning mix)

1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

Combine all the ingredients in a 4-quart or larger slow cooker. Cook on low for at least 6 hours.

— Adapted from a recipe on Food.com by Lanis Young

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