On a cold Saturday morning, 29-year-old Sarah McAlee’s North Side apartment is filled with the deep aromas of a mirepoix slowly sauteeing on her stove. She opens her freezer, which is packed with quarts of golden broths.
On her counter sits a massive 35-quart pot, waiting for her next creation.
She calls herself “brothmonger” and her homemade soups are quietly taking over the hungry hearts of Pittsburgh. The catch? You can only order her soups through her Instagram account, where she is known as @brothmonger.
“I have always been a big soup lover and felt like there weren’t really any spots in Pittsburgh that offered really good homemade soup, so I started making it and selling it through Instagram last fall ,” McAlee says.
She posts her soup-of-the-week on Instagram, sometimes taking a poll from her followers on which soup they would prefer that week. On Sundays, she shares her soups available for purchase at $12 a quart: one vegan, one non-vegan and occasionally a bonus soup. Lately, she has been making and selling up to 35 quarts per week.
To order, customers can direct message her through Instagram and pay via Venmo. After that, they can either pick it up at McAlee’s house or arrange for a delivery, if it isn’t too far away.
While some of her soups are her own creations and others are inspired by food writers and bloggers, she is never one to follow an exact recipe. “I have ingredients written down, but I don’t have any portions of anything,” she says.
Some of her customers’ favorites include broccoli cheddar and french onion.
“There’s a couple that I made that I keep thinking about, too, because they were really good to me, like the clam chowder and the gumbo.”
The clam chowder is special because the recipe was from her grandfather, who was a cook in the army. He died two years ago.
“My grandpa Jack was never a particularly kind or loving person, but the man made a killer clam chowder,” she says in an Instagram post. “And apparently, so do I.”
Another standby recipe is her mother’s sausage tortellini, which is made with homemade pasta. “I think that is my favorite just because I’ve been eating it for so long, and I could make it in my sleep,” she says.
But McAlee is always up for learning a new recipe. When she decided recently she wanted to make matzo ball soup, she did extensive research, including talking to all of her Jewish friends to make sure she got it right.
Altogether, she has made more than 40 different types of soups.
“Going to restaurants is great, but eating food that someone cooks, like how they would cook for their family, is such a special experience,” McAlee says. “It’s a huge part of why this works. It sounds stupid, but I think that love is the most important ingredient. I put all of my love and thought and care into everything that I feed people, and it makes a big difference.”
For McAlee, the connections she can form through her soup is her favorite part of this experience.
“This has seriously opened me up to so many people,” she says. “A couple of weeks ago, I delivered soup to this older lady who just had her hip replaced, and she was just trotting around her house with a walker. After I left her house, I was just like ‘oh my god, I feel amazing.’”
One of “the brothmonger’s” biggest fans is film producer Rick Sebak.
“I think her soups are extraordinary. The broths are truly excellent,” he says. “I love the way that she presents them, and she will often have toppings that are packaged separately.”
She is working to obtain a vendor’s license and hopes to expand by hosting pop-up dinners and selling at local markets, but she isn’t quite sure if she’s ready to go full-time with her soup-making.
McAlee works as a funeral director for Laughlin Memorial Chapel in the South Hills.
“I really love my job,” she says.
“It’s what I wanted to do my whole life. I grew up in a really big family, so I have been going to funerals since I was a young kid, and I realized that people are terrible at death,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to be like that. I wanted to help people not be traumatized when somebody dies. People are always going to die, and in some way, you kind of have to be ready for it.”
She sees a connection between her day job and the soup business. She’s always looking to provide comfort to others.
“I think that nurturing, in any kind of form, is my true calling,” McAlee says. “It’s where I’m most comfortable.”
Want to know more about great soups in Pittsburgh? Check out our recent feature.