Three cheers for “Soul-Soothing Soups,” a surprisingly heartwarming story in Food & Wine that details the work of a skilled soup maker with a heart of gold.

Taking care of the needy is a mitzvah, but doing so in a way that affirms their essential human dignity is doubly terrific. Chicago’s Mary Ellen Diaz makes soups that are good enough for the city’s best restaurants but uses them to feed 400 homeless people each week.

Stories about inspiring do-gooders have a tendency to melt down into a goopy mass of platitudes and shopworn clichés, but this particular story elegantly eludes those traps by sticking to the facts … and the food.

‘Last year we made a lot of Cajun food to feed displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina. We also get a lot of requests for food with Latin flavors, dishes that might use tortillas. Smothered pork chops are really popular. A pot of greens is definitely a big thing, because most people on the street don’t have access to farm-fresh produce. It’s interesting: A lot of our clientele grew up in rural communities, and they know more about growing fruit and vegetables than I do. They ask really specific questions about the soil and the farming methods.’

It’s easy to say that one person can’t really make a meaningful difference, which discourages taking personal
action. And it’s also easy to so over-celebrate community activists that they ascend to a seemingly unattainable saint-like plateau—which also discourages personal action. “Soul-Soothing Soups” keeps it real, and it’s difficult to read without thinking, “Well, dammit. What can I do?”

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