From Jerusalem artichokes to soup, a world in a church carpark

This a story about an event that took place in Cardiff, nearly a decade ago as it happens, but it could have been last week. It was small, unassuming, ordinary, and it contained a whole world. It is a story of how food connects people and the land, and threads through history and politics, holding everything together.

Imagine then a church carpark on a weekday evening in January, where a few of us, armed with voice recorders, notebooks and loose academic credentials, are making our plans in the freezing dark. Around us people are setting up urns of soup on trestle tables and putting out chairs, while aromas of spice and tomato waft across the tarmac. The event, dubbed The Day of the Soup by the vicar, was a simple idea. Various organizations – a church, a synagogue, some local primary schools – came together to put on a simple food celebration to bring the community together, serving soup outdoors to parishioners, parents and anyone who happened to be passing.

Our job was to interview the guests, collecting what we called their ‘soup stories’. We would investigate the inner world of the event, to find out what people were thinking as they sat gamely at the formica tables with their friends and children, or served soup, or walked about to keep warm. What was the inner reality that paralleled the exterior action? What was the invisible meaning?

It turned out to be much richer than the unphotogenic surface suggested. People had plenty to say. There was the Sudanese woman recalling the soup they shared back in her home country, to end the fast of Ramadan. Her mother had taught her that hot soup was better than solid food or cold water on an empty stomach, and she had brought that custom with her to the UK. Another described making soup with her daughters: “Even bendy carrots are fine for a soup—chop them up and pop them in, no need to let anything go to waste….my girls are now grown-up…but every Saturday they come down—and every Saturday, before they come, they ring to check we’re having Saturday Soup. It’s our thing”.

Then there were stories related to the event itself. A teacher told me how they had planned to cook with leeks from a nearby farm, but it turned out that the crop was frozen into the ground and so they had to make other arrangements. This could have been a disappointment, but for him it became instead a story to share. He had clearly been exhilarated by an encounter with natural limits to what we can eat, something from which the all-powerful supermarket usually protects us. The same farm meanwhile had been able to supply Jerusalem artichokes (presumably because they had already been lifted), which had posed a challenge for the children.

drawing of a girl peeling an artichoke at a table

“They’re just really bumpy! It’s hard to peel them with a peeler, it’s like it’s wobbly and then it’s not like in the same shape, it’s up and down,” as one of the children put it when I visited them earlier in the week to watch them prepare the knobbly tubers, holding them down on plastic chopping mats and going at them courageously with potato peelers and knives. One parent at least appreciated this novel food. A man of central Asian appearance who was sitting slightly apart in the half-darkness with his daughter smilingly agreed to talk into the recorder. He explained that he was going to google the strange vegetable that evening, buy it in the Sunday market, and cook with it for his family and friends.

This, I thought, would be my moment. He would share a story of yurts and yaks under the starry skies of the Gobi Desert, and the small space of an urban carpark would expand into limitless expanses of the exotic east. I prompted him to reminisce. But he wasn’t interested in that. “Yes, we had soup…” he said vaguely. But he became animated when he talked about the soup that was actually in front of him: “When I am tasting that soup I am back to…you know hundred years ago, British people, and in the cold winter in that time, to eating that soup and talking nice things.”

What did he mean by that? It struck me that perhaps he was making use of the social space that evening to make new meaning for himself. And it was not any old space – it had been created by the shared intentions of a church, a synagogue, a primary school and others, as a service to the community. It was as if he had intuited the serious purpose of the evening and was enjoying the depth of it, seeing an opportunity to create a new connection with his adopted home, through an imagined past that was closer to his own culture.

Maybe one day, he was thinking, Wales also had been a place where people gathered against the cold and warmed each other with soup and conversation, as still happens in more traditional societies. Maybe he was tracing a universal thread that gave him roots of a sort in his adopted country, the humble vegetable a symbol of connection, joining the two halves of his life together. Listening to him, I hoped more of us might do the same, seeing our food as the gift that it is and receiving its meaning.

There were many stories told that evening, some about the food, others about the area and how it had changed over the decades. One rather jarringly lamented the way that, in her view, immigration had obliterated the original character of the area. But even that observation had a validity, as a loss to be acknowledged, even as the speaker set aside those concerns and received her portion from the communal urn. The demolition of poor-quality housing and relocation of the original residents to the outskirts of Cardiff had indeed torn the heart out of the community, as another speaker put it, and such losses are not easily replaced; the arrival of a new population with a high proportion of immigrants was the other side of the coin. A different perspective on immigration came from a woman at the synagogue, one of whose parents had come over on the kindertransport.

Loss of traditional food skills came up, as it usually does. “I think it’s sad that society has moved more towards fast food.  I think it’s very sad.  I think a lot of youngsters that I meet now, they seem to have lost that lovely thing of making something from nothing…and they don’t realize it how it can be cheap to make your own, it doesn’t have to be expensive.” In another conversation, a couple of women spoke admiringly about a teenage boy they knew who regularly cooked for his family under difficult circumstances, and celebrated his skill.

For some visitors, the event served a rather obvious purpose: free food. One young man who lived in a hostel nearby talked about money worries as he ate his fill, before leaving for his part-time job: “Food is like music, isn’t it?” he said as he left. “It brings us together.” Meanwhile, there was a revealing remark from one of the supporting organizations: “Being visible at events helps us find more money. The more people we can sign up to our service the more we can grow—we can increase our membership and get grants.” We are all connected.

The soup event was not organized in order to decide anything or make a point. It was there simply for its own sake. It provided a space for a community and visitors to come together and to know themselves, and to affirm each other. For those who had the privilege of listening in, it revealed a great deal about relationships in that particular community, and how it had come to be, with its roots in many continents and cultures. This is very different from carrying out a survey of the local shops, say, or interviewing people about their diets. It allows deep meaning to emerge, and as I write about it now years later, it still teaches me. It was an encounter.

It was an example too of public space, something that is becoming less common than it was, as post offices are moved into supermarkets and public squares are filled with advertising. Schools, churches, mosques, community centres, libraries, streets – these are places where we can meet each other in a way that is more than just a commercial transaction. If we can create more such spaces in which we come together to share food with strangers, and maybe empower the occasion with reminders of our collective existence through art and music, then we begin to achieve the depth of human connection that might allow us to face some of our problems with courage. We must celebrate hope and connection wherever we can find it, and sharing food is an act of faith that we must make again and again.

Food can connect us at the political level, too. At this year’s Royal Welsh Show, new Future Generations Commissioner Derek Walker drew attention to the twin challenges of malnutrition and obesity and spoke about food as the connecting factor between carbon emissions, wildlife loss and river pollution, in Wales and globally. He said it was “at the centre of almost every conversation I’m having on how we can make Wales a better place to live” and that he would make it a focus during his seven-year tenure.

The Well-being of Future Generation Act is much touted as ground-breaking legislation in which Wales leads the world, and in theory at least it creates a public space in which citizens can help shape the future. But there is a great deal of work to be done, and it needs to capture the public imagination in a way that has not happened yet. Perhaps by linking that political process to the social one of community meals such as this soup event – and there are many other way of bringing people together through food, exemplified by the local food partnerships that Welsh Government has been supporting across Wales – we can join our collective wish for a better future on the one hand, with the concrete necessities of our daily food on the other. Thus we might start to build a new world in the midst of the old.

This essay was runner-up in Planet Magazine’s New Writers’ Competition 2023.