When it comes to foods that are welcoming, warming, enveloping and accepting, nothing in our culture compares to soup. It’s hospitality in a bowl, and while it can come in versions that are fancy and sophisticated, it’s generally thought of as hearty, rustic and cozy.

In the case of Soup Sisters, the dish is not just symbolic, but literal. This organization really does bring people together to make soup for local shelters.

Started in March 2009 in Calgary by optician Sharon Hapton, Soup Sisters just recently created a Toronto branch of an organization they hope will spread right across Canada.

Soup Sisters was founded with a mandate to nurture and nourish woman and children who are victims of family violence and domestic abuse by providing fresh home made soups to shelters,” explains Hapton. “We think that soup is the ultimate kind and simple gesture and when community people come together it becomes a strong voice against domestic abuse. It’s also really easy to make in groups and virtually impossible to mess up!”

Here in Toronto, Soup Sisters gathers once at month at Dish Cooking Studio. While participants are encouraged to put together a group of 12 people or more, anyone can attend in groups or on their own. “We will always find a group for individuals to join in with,” Hapton says. “This is such a feel good endeavour that most people are more than happy to have others join their group.” Each session can accommodate about 30 people who are then divided into groups of 5 or 6 and usually make about 5 different soups total (15 litres each). In the end, participants have created anywhere from 150-200 servings of soup that will be delivered to Interval House, a Toronto shelter for women and children.

The cooking sessions are supervised by a professional chef (at the launch event, Christine Cushing supervised in the kitchen), and for the $45 per person fee, all materials and ingredients are supplied. Participants get to enjoy a bowl of soup at the end of the evening, along with salad, bread and wine. There’s also a Soup Sisters tote bag to commemorate the evening.

In Calgary, Hapton has also come up with a group called Broth Brothers; working under the same premise, it brings men together for a night of soup-making with their soups directed to a Calgary organization called The Doorway, which assists teens and youth. There are plans to create a Broth Brothers group here in Toronto, but Hapton assures me that men are definitely welcome at Soup Sisters gatherings.

“The soup has become viral very quickly in Toronto!” she says in response to the fact that the Soup Sisters sessions in both Calgary and Toronto are fully booked until early 2011. “We will likely be launching Broth Brothers sooner than anticipated to create new soup making dates and availability for groups to come together and make fresh soup for our recipients.”

The organization has indeed gone viral. Plans are in the works to start a branch of Soup Sisters in Vancouver and Hapton says they are looking to expand wherever there is interest. “Unfortunately there is no shortage of shelters in our country and also no shortage of people willing to help out,” she explains. “We get requests daily from people all over interested in starting a Soup Sisters. One just this morning from Newfoundland.”

Soup Sisters goes beyond your typical cooking class (participants don’t need mad skillz to take part); it’s a way to spend some time with friends or make new ones. Participants learn new recipes (some of the recipes used can be found on the Soup Sisters website), new skills, and leave knowing not just that they’ve done something to help others, but that they’re part of a greater community effort to spread comfort and caring through good food.