"Oh, no," said Shannon Smith, shaking her blond head with energy.
She just cannot reveal the family recipe for Marvelous Minestrone soup, the cook declared with a straight face and wide eyes. "The Catholics might get it."
The room erupts in laughter at one more in a wave of jokes rolling across the kitchen at St. Paul's Episcopal Church as a group of soup and pie makers gathered on a Monday to prepare for the next day.
Launched as a way to raise money for church programs, "St. Paul's Soup & Pie Luncheons" has been on the menu for 40 years. Every Tuesday during Lent, the public is invited to get a bowl of homemade soup, bread and a slice of any one of several flavors of pie. "For $6," said church member Sharon Smith. "You can't get that anywhere else."
The tradition began with the Rev. Ernie Campbell and his bride, Margaret. The couple arrived in Walla Walla in 1969, fresh-faced and filled with new ideas. During the next Lent season in 1970, "Soup & Pie" was birthed here.
"We brought it from our church in Minnesota," Margaret Campbell recalled. It took a few years to get some of the kinks worked out - vats of soup had to be stored in the refrigerators at Walla Walla Community College back then, for instance. And when soup was completely cooked on Mondays, it took the entire day for the pots to cool enough to be refrigerated. "Sometimes we were there until 5 o'clock."
No matter the glitches, the event was an immediate hit. "There are lots more places to eat downtown these days ... way back then, there really weren't a lot of lunch places," she said. Medical providers would bring entire office staffs and fill up a table or two. Bible study groups at the church would end a session and head upstairs to lunch.
Sharon, 82, has been involved from the start. She continues to be voted in as chairwoman, she noted, while choreographing a crew of volunteer chefs - who have jump-started the first day of the 2010 soup season with the box of frosted doughnuts on the counter.
"Every year is a little different," Sharon said. "We cook five pots each week. Sometimes we serve 300 people in one day ... the townspeople all come."
She is doing her part to keep the tradition alive, including convincing her adult daughters to help with the effort. Shannon Smith and Chele Smith Guess are busy boiling mountains of pasta as their mother chats. This is the duo's second year of officially helping, although "we grew up on this," Chele, 58, said.
"We kinda didn't have a choice," Shannon agreed, looking around. "We're the only daughters here, aren't we?"
The annual luncheon season is just too wonderful to let die, the sisters added. To stir in new spice, Shannon, 48, started a Facebook page for marketing the event this year.
"Soup & Pie" may look like a one-day, once-a-week deal to outsiders, but it's really a triple-time process, the Smith sisters explain. For their appointed turn, they shopped and chopped on Sunday. On this day, a Monday, they are cooking individual ingredients under a stove hood the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
On Tuesday morning, everything will be heated, ready for serving the crowd. "Soup's always better the second day," Chele said.
After that, someone else takes control of the hearty offering. Mike Jones, chef manager of Whitman College's Bon Appetite, presented "Creamy Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup" and next week, Campbell will oversee "Fabulous French Walla Walla Sweet Onion Soup."
There are a few infamous stories throughout the 40-year history, Sharon murmured, sotto voce. There was the year the refrigerators quit on Monday night while filled with Tuesday's soup. "We had about two hours (upon discovery). I ran to Burbee and got huge cans of broth, everyone went to the store, we called and people came in and chopped and cooked," she reminisced. "You know, it was the best soup we ever had."
Quality and safety is important to the luncheon's reputation and Sharon is proud of the Walla Walla County Public Health Department permit stuck on the kitchen bulletin board. "They can come in at any time. The rules are real strict, they have to be. We do everything according to the health department."
The meals are a lot of work, but lots of fun as well, said Sandi Blackaby.
Her job this day is to make the banana cream pie and cherry cheesecake, which must be prepared in the church kitchen to meet regulation.
Ann Schmitt, too, is busy at pie prep. Her contribution will be two pecan pies, made from her grandmother McCammon's recipe.
"She was a good Midwestern pie baker," Schmitt said.
The most popular pie - "ever" - is the sugary, Southern-style confection, chess pie, according to Beth Ann Dilts. "One person makes that and it is gone in no time."
Around the kitchen, minestrone ingredients are beginning to heap. Potatoes, bell peppers, ground beef ... hotel pans filled with fresh food outnumber the cooks.
In one corner, two prep chefs are in tears. Ruth Hartley and Mary Bell are in charge of quartering onions, which they accomplish with sure motions and plenty of blinking. "I told the photographer, ‘No pictures of the eyes, hands only,'" Bell joked.
Someone calls out for a corkscrew. "Who's starting to drink already?" Sharon joked with a wink. "Just wait 'til the pie servers come tomorrow. Toward the end, the slices get real big."
It's that camaraderie and more that attracted Schmitt to "Soup & Pie" not long after she moved here from California and joined St. Paul's.
The kitchen is a very entertaining place to spend a Tuesday, she said, and the entire concept is "essential Walla Walla - people gathering at tables to talk together.
"We all know each other, but it's not often we get to sit and talk to each other," she said.
Campbell's experience echoes that.
"It's become such a tradition for some people and they can't hardly wait," she explained.
"You go somewhere in town and they ask ‘When does soup and pie start?'"
There are two more Tuesdays in this Lent season to indulge in chatter and chowder at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 323 Catherine St. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children. For more information, call 509-529-1083.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at email@example.com or at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom or at 509-526-8322.
- 20 pounds ground beef
- 1 med. bottle olive oil
- 4 large bags of elbow macaroni
- 15 large onions
- 21 carrots
- 18 stalks celery
- 21 green, red and yellow peppers - seven of each
- 3 bags fresh spinach
- 22 red and yellow potatoes
- 2 small jars minced garlic
- 2 large bunches fresh basil
- 10 cartons beef stock
- 5 jars powered beef stock crystals
- 3 bottles Italian seasonings
- 18 large cans of crushed tomatoes
- 6 bottles red wine
- 5 containers shredded Parmesan cheese
- 4 large bags crushed ice
- Large sealable plastic bags
Cook hamburger with oil and mash into fine pieces; drain in strainers and let cool. Recipe by Shannon Smith and Chele Smith Guess
Cook pasta, drain, let cool. Separate into five large plastic bags. Pour some olive oil into each bag and "smoosh" around to distribute evenly. Refrigerate overnight.
Using food processor, chop onions, carrots, celery and peppers.
Cut unpeeled potatoes into bite-sized chunks.
Stem and tear spinach and put into two plastic bags, refrigerate overnight.
Divide into five large stock pots: hamburger, beef broth/stock, onions, wine, carrots, garlic, celery, canned tomatoes, peppers, basil, potatoes and spices.
Add water to each pot to make it 3/4 full. Boil to 180 degrees. Cool down to 60 degrees in ice baths in sink. Refrigerate overnight.
The next day bring pots back to a boil, add spinach and pasta.
Serve with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese on top of each bowl, corn bread and a slice of homemade pie.
Grandmother McCammon's Pecan Pie
- 3 eggs
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/3 tsp. salt
- 1/3 cup butter, melted
- 1 cup dark corn syrup
- 1 cup pecan halves
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Beat eggs, sugar, salt, melted butter and dark corn syrup with hand beater. Stir in pecans. Pour into pasty-lined pie pan.
Bake until filling is set, 40 to 50 minutes. Cool slightly. Serve warm or refrigerate.
Makes a 9 inch pie
By Ann Schmitt