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In Laguna Beach, It's Soup -- Chicken or Otherwise -- for the Community Soul

Monthly gathering at the mayor's house is open to all. It's a chance to share a meal and talk about almost anything, sometimes even politics.

March 08, 2004|CHRISTINE HANLEY | Times Staff Writer

Laguna Beach Mayor Cheryl Kinsman and her husband, Michael, never know who's going to be hobnobbing in their kitchen when soup is being served. And they wouldn't want it any other way.

On the first Friday of every month except December, the Kinsmans open the doors of their beachside digs as the hosts of "Soup," a feast aimed at fostering community spirit in this city of 23,000.

Anyone is welcome, be they city leaders, gadflies, local activists, friends or friends of friends. Guests take turns as the soup makers. Everyone else is expected to bring a dish or wine or dessert or whatever else might complement the main course.

"It's been very jolly," said Anne Johnson, a planning commissioner who had a hand in establishing the event. "Some people come regularly, and some people just drop by. That's what's interesting. You never know who's going to be there."

There's one strictly enforced rule: No politics. But everyone admits that's a tough topic of conversation to police in a small town like Laguna, especially when the main host and some of the guests are elected officials.

"Every so often, Cheryl will shoot me a glance over someone's head, and I'm supposed to go over and intervene," Johnson said. "It's usually around election time, of course. Someone will show up and try to lobby her. It's hard to discourage them without being out-and-out rude."

Soup actually got started when a different mayor didn't show up for lunch.

As the story goes, Kathleen Blackburn, who served on the City Council for eight years, invited Johnson and Kinsman to dine with her one day but had to cancel because of a family emergency.

Johnson and Kinsman, who were strangers at the time and waiting at different tables, decided to share lunch anyway. They talked about this and that and everything in between. By the end of their meal, they were hatching a way for strangers like themselves to meet.

"Good thing I didn't show up, huh?" Blackburn says. "The conversation might have gone somewhere else."

Soup is actually an incarnation of a similar gathering organized in Claremont by Linda Humphrey, a folklore professor at Citrus College in Glendora. Humphrey got started in the early 1970s, making soup every Thursday night for about 15 to 20 guests.

Initially, she invited people she knew. But one night a strange man rang the doorbell, saying he had heard around town that soup was being served and asked if he could have some. So she let him in. Soon, the guest list reflected the community itself: poets, teachers, artists, accountants, lawyers.

"It was all sorts of people," Humphrey said. "My theory was: Sharing food creates community. I don't think I invented it. The idea goes back to the caveman. If you're comfortable sharing food, it will create a community that could last for a long time."

Humphrey's soup dinners lasted for more than 20 years. She stopped about eight years ago when she moved into a smaller house. She misses those days. But she couldn't be happier to hear that Johnson, an occasional guest back then, is helping to keep the tradition alive. Two other former guests have taken the idea with them to New Paltz, N.Y., and Murfreesboro, Tenn.

The Laguna Beach event has gone on without fail for six years running. The gatherings are not held in December because Santa arrives in Laguna on the first Friday of that month.

On a recent first Friday, the soup maker is Catrina Dicterow, wife of City Councilman Steve Dicterow. She is at the stove, stirring three kinds of soup she made for the occasion: cream of tomato, potato vegetable and potato cheese.

The crowd in the kitchen is a who's who of Laguna's past and present political scene. Aside from her husband, there's Eileen Walsh, a former school board member, who brought a friend and breaded chicken drumettes with a cheese sauce. Former Mayor Wayne Peterson came with his partner, Terry Smith, and a Vogel chardonnay. The other Wayne, City Councilman Wayne Baglin, arrives with a hot pizza.

The talk is of favorite movies, wines, recent marriages, divorces. The usual fare. Wait a minute. Did someone just criticize the school board for entertaining the idea of opening up the city's classrooms for an MTV reality show?

"It's hard not to talk politics," says self-professed computer geek Jim Rue, a local who came to the first Soup and has attended as many as possible ever since.

In the living room, not far from two tables spread with appetizers, salads, casseroles, brownies, cookies and other delights, Bob Henry has no time for such banter. He's too busy breaking a different set of rules.

"Against my doctor's orders, I'm having pizza," he says with a smirk.

Henry, a onetime producer for comedian Flip Wilson who now serves as president of the Festival of Arts, is balancing his soup bowl and a dinner plate piled high with goodies. A regular guest, Henry can't remember anyone making three soups.

"I got one, then I heard about another, and then I heard about this one," he says, pointing to the cream of tomato in his bowl.

"I can have soup for dessert. I could be here all week."

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