On the first Saturday of December, as they have done for decades, a crowd gathered around six very big pots of soup in the Neely house kitchen in Regent Square.

There are holiday parties, and then there’s Big Soup.

Now in its 23rd year, this party has evolved into a fundraising event that this year alone brought together 273 guests—including 84 children—who donated $10,167.12 to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (GPCFB). For every dollar raised, the food bank provides five meals. It could be the best deal in town.

“It’s a beautiful event born out of love,” said Carmon Rinehart, a Southside photographer sporting an Eat Big Soup t-shirt.

As detailed in Maggie Stuckey’s 2013 book, Soup Night, the Neely family started Big Soup when they were in their early 20s and funds for entertaining friends were scarce. One year, they decided to invite friends over for really good and “really big soup.” Then in 2003 they set out a soup bowl and asked for contributions to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

“The first year we raised $210, and we thought it was a big deal,” says Melissa Neely, who runs her own graphic design firm, Neelyhouse Design. Her husband Stephen teaches music at Carnegie Mellon as well as Pittsburgh CAPA. 

The event has grown over the years, along with their circle of friends. Melissa estimates they have raised more than $47,000 for the Food Bank over the years. And Big Soup has inspired others to host similar events. Melissa receives email inquiries throughout the year from people hoping to start their own Big Soup.

Stephen and Melissa Neely, creators of Big Soup. Photo by Nick Vargas of East End Studios.
Stephen and Melissa Neely, creators of Big Soup. Photo by Nick Vargas of East End Studios.

Planning a party

An event of this scope and size doesn’t come together quickly. In the weeks leading up to it, the Neelys sample and test soups to decide on the six varieties and roughly 45 gallons that they will prepare and serve.

“Once we found we could use the party to help with the food bank, the purpose shifted. The work needed to prepare for the party became worth it,” says Melissa. “I think we have created an evening where everyone feels welcome and our guests have a chance to make a small difference in the lives of people who are having a hard time feeding their families.”

Every year the Neelys serve their annual house soup, Potato Cheese, along with a chocolate dessert soup. Yes, a chocolate dessert soup.

New to the menu this year was G-CC-Q, a soup that Melissa Neely invented with ginger, creamy carrot, coconut with quinoa topped with flat-leaf parsley and Pasta fagioli (the trick, Melissa advises, is to add cooked noodles just before serving so the pasta doesn’t swell and take over the dish). Another soup they added this year was Tom Yum, a Thai-Lemongrass topped with bok choy and cilantro. Click here for an archive of recipes for soups served over the years.

There’s a prize for that

At every Big Soup party, the Neelys award prizes for the best soup bowl, the biggest spoon and the farthest distance traveled.

The competition for best soup bowl has become quite fierce.

Sasha Rosenberg, a student instrumentalist at CAPA, who spooned African Peanut soup out of an inverted Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority cone that he wore around his neck, thought he had a chance at the title.

“I think I’ll win,” said Ari Freedman, 15, demonstrating that a bowling ball sawed in half doubles quite nicely as a soup bowl.

Kathryn Sitter won a prize for this creative hat. Photo by Nick Vargas of East End Studios.
Kathryn Sitter won a prize for this creative hat. Photo by Nick Vargas of East End Studios.

Instead, the award this year for tbest soup bowl went to Kathryn Sitter of Point Breeze for a hat she commissioned: a soup bowl nested in a peacock plumage.

“Next year we are planning a soup bra,” Sitter confides.

Learn more about the awesomeness that is Big Soup .

Donate to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Heidi Brayer is a writer and editor at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute. One of her favorite pastimes is sneaking D's hotdogs into Sunday night movies at the Regent.