Raise your hand if you've become a soup expert this winter. With all of the cold and snow (someone please tell Mother Nature it's almost April), soup pots throughout New England have been bubbling away five or so months now.

There's a certain magic about soup. It's the food that heals, that warms on even the most bitter, bone-chilling days. I love soup, almost any kind of soup, except for the sketchy bowl of goat's head soup I had once in Jamaica. What's more, for me, soup is the star of one of my earliest childhood food memories. I was young -- 4, maybe -- and my mother sent me next door to visit with Fran, our Italian neighbor who knew how to cook way before cooking was cool.

I walked right into the kitchen (that's what you did in those days) and there was Fran at the stove, stirring a big pot of something.

She gave me a spoonful of pasta fagioli, an Italian bean soup. I ate it, then asked for more. And more, and more. According to the legend, I ate a huge bowl of soup that day, and would've eaten more if Fran wasn't afraid of the repercussions of so many cannellini beans on a bambina's delicate system.

These days, I often make my own pasta fagioli, but it never compares to Fran's. When I see it listed on a menu, I can't help but remember that day, sitting on her kitchen counter while she spooned the garlicky broth into my mouth like a mama bird. It was more than a food experience. It was a lifelong memory of neighbors and community.

More Information

THE SCOOP St. Anthony of Padua Church: 149 South Pine Creek Road, Fairfield. 203-259-0358 Unitarian Church in Westport: 10 Lyons Plains Road, Westport. 203-227-7205 And some other places … Chef's Table, 1561 Post Road, Fairfield. 203-255-1051 Garelick & Herbs, 1799 Post Road East, Westport. 203-972-4497 Swanson's Fish Market: 2439 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield. 203-374-1577

I got that same kind of happy vibe when I visited St. Anthony's Church in Fairfield last Saturday. For five weeks leading up to Easter, the church hosts Lenten soup suppers on Saturday nights following the 6 p.m. Mass.

"We started in 2003 as a way to build community and raise money for shelters or the food pantry," said Eleanor Sauers, director of religious education. "The idea was to have a very simple soup supper, with bread, soup and water."

Participants are asked to donate whatever they would have spent on dinner that evening. That first year, they had three different soups and were hoping to make $1,000 for the entire length of the fundraiser.

Eight years later, they're up to an average of 12 soups each Saturday, and last week alone they raised nearly $1,000 for the Merton House soup kitchen in Bridgeport.

"It gets a little competitive," joked Karen Kraus, who was busy coordinating the evening. Each week, a different church group cooks the soups. Last week, the Pastoral Council and choir took over the stoves. On this particular evening, it was the religious education volunteers, and next week will be the Eucharistic ministers and lectors. The final two weeks will be divided among the men of the church and then the women.

Rick Motasky was busy overseeing the kitchen and keeping a careful watch over the dozen different soups that were to be offered. He raised his mixing spoon and said, "Tonight we have potato leek, winter squash, several versions of turkey and beef chili, Thai carrot, escarole, split pea, beef vegetable and rice, Italian sausage stew and chicken with chicken meatballs." In addition, they make macaroni and cheese for the kids.

"When we have lobster or crab bisque, we bring that out last," said Motasky, laughing. "Those always go the quickest."

In fact, it appeared that people were anxious to get started on the soups. "It's fun. People love it," said Sauers. "They want to know why we can't do it all year, but then it wouldn't be special."

Part of the appeal, she said, is the opportunity to meet others you wouldn't necessarily see. "The soup suppers have reached beyond congregational boundaries," said Sauers. "In one family, the husband worships at St. Anthony's, but his wife and children are Jewish. They come every year and make matzoh ball soup for the supper. In another instance, the woman who has actually organized the suppers for the past few years is the Protestant wife of a parishioner, whose children attend our religious education program."

Once everyone has had their fill of soup, they have the option to take home a pint for $2. The remaining leftovers are given to Operation Hope, the local homeless shelter and community kitchen.

There's something to this soup/community parallel, because at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Westport, soup is sold after each service. You can buy a cup to eat there, or take home a small or large container for dinner later. It's a bargain lunch at $4 for a generous cup (with bread).

This past weekend the offerings were tomato cauliflower or macaroni-and-cheese. (Apparently, mac-and-cheese is insinuating its way into the soup category, but that's a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say, this was the best mac and cheese I've ever had, even better than the recipe from the back of the Mueller's elbow macaroni box. I'll be tracking down that recipe.)

I won't start waxing poetic about the link between soup and community, but I will say there's definitely something there. Maybe it's because one pot can feed a lot of people. Or perhaps it's the idea that, by using bits and pieces of whatever ingredients you have on hand, you can satiate and nourish both body and soul.

Whatever the case, soup is special. Whether it's good old-fashioned chicken noodle or some exotic African yam-and-bean concoction, soup has the power to being people together in a most satisfying way.

Email Patti Woods at eatdrinkshopcook@gmail.com.

THE SCOOP

St. Anthony of Padua Church, 149 South Pine Creek Road, Fairfield. 203-259-0358

Unitarian Church in Westport, 10 Lyons Plains Road, Westport. 203-227-7205

And some other soup-er places ...

Chef's Table, 1561 Post Road, Fairfield. 203-255-1051

Garelick & Herbs, 1799 Post Road East, Westport. 203-972-4497

Swanson's Fish Market: 2439 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield. 203-374-1577