#251: Karen’s Stone Soup

December 4th, 2013

“Many thanks for what you have taught us,” the peasants said to the soldiers. “We shall never go hungry, now that we know how to make soup from stones.”

– “Stone Soup” by Marcia Brown, from the traditional folk tale

We know the story. The soldiers (or beggar, or peasant, or storyteller, or traveling Portuguese monk) start boiling a rock and declare it delicious. Almost perfect.

But.

But a carrot from your garden would help bring it together. An onion would really bring out the flavor. Oh, does anyone have any salt?

One by one, the villagers contribute what they have. Coming together, the community is fed.

Eight years ago, Karen Gerod started soup, opening the Swim Café across from a park district pool in Noble Square.

The metaphor starts to fall apart here — they serve quite good food instead of trying to con villagers out of theirs. But in terms of putting in the first ingredient of something that would eventually create and nourish a community, Karen Gerod boiled that rock and boiled it good.

“In a big city or anywhere there are some preexisting structures that help create community, like family, like schools, like workplaces,” said Swim regular, writer Martha Bayne. “I’ve always been interested in the third-space communities formed at bars or in restaurants. Communities of choice.”

Four years ago, Bayne started the hunger-relief fundraiser series Soup & Bread, which gathers all comers at the Hideout once a week for pay-what-you-can community meals. Gerod was one of the first local restauranteurs Bayne asked to donate, you guessed it, soup.

Gerod has been a regular ever since, always at the ready with a pot of soup or tray of cookies to help raise money for local food banks. Another carrot is thrown in with the stone.

Last year, J.H. Palmer had a problem. She and co-organizer Angela Benander had arranged all the performers, the venue, the crowd — everything for the inaugural reading for the That’s All She Wrote live lit series.

Then Palmer got a call. The venue had folded.

“We had less than two weeks and the whole restaurant closed. Apparently even the servers didn’t know,” Palmer said.

Two weeks out and the series now homeless, Palmer took a chance and emailed a small spot a friend knew: Swim Café. That’s All She Wrote has lived at Swim ever since, with Gerod opening up after hours just for the monthly series.

“It’s really something she’s doing out of her generosity of spirit,” Palmer said. “She doesn’t charge us anything.”

Another bit of community. A potato tossed in with the stone.

Gerod, feisty and free-spirited, the woman who once got chewed out by the cops for tackling a robber on her own, would go to each show, chatting with Palmer afterward. Then she wouldn’t chat for as long. Then she would skip a show or two. Then she stopped showing up at all.

Then Palmer got a call.

“’You might have noticed I haven’t been there lately because I’ve been sick.’”

Karen Gerod is sick. It’s bad.

On Dec. 11, a week from today, Palmer and Bayne, That’s All She Wrote and Soup & Bread, are having a fundraiser to help defray some of Karen’s medical bills. Food, performances, readers, eaters and all the other residents of the community Gerod helped build will gather for a night of soup, bread and stories on the topics of health care and caretaking to raise money for one of their own.

“I just wanted to create this space for people to say thank you and remind her that she’s still a part of this community,” Bayne said.

And they want you to join, both the event and the community.

You can RSVP through Facebook if you want. There’s a partial list of readers and cooks there, but Bayne is adding more every day

If you can’t make it to the show, there’s a YouCaring.com page for Gerod where you can donate online. They set a $500 target so donors wouldn’t be intimidated, but don’t be fooled. Gerod’s medical needs go far beyond $500.

Go to the event if you can. Give some money if you can.

Coming together, the community is fed.

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You are currently reading #251: Karen’s Stone Soup by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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