Soup fosters a good story, and was an integral narrative element for Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Willa Cather (1873-1947). In Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), two French missionaries arrive in New Mexico to work with the locals. On Christmas Eve, Father Latour enjoys a soup prepared by his friend Father Vaillant, exclaiming: “A soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition.There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.” The soup recalls his homeland, a hearty symbol of French civilization. In The Song of the Lark (1915), a piano teacher measures the success of a meal on the reception of the broth: “[Harsanyi] had a theory that if the soup went well, the dinner would go well; but if the soup was poor, all was lost. To-night he tasted the soup and smiled . . .”
Like many women writers, Cather’s contribution and reputation has shifted with the tides of prevailing ideas of feminism and cultural relevance, but now her 12 novels, 6 collections of short fiction and 9 volumes of nonfiction are firmly established as part of the American literary canon. Born in Back Creek, Virginia, her family headed to Nebraska in the 1880s, where the gritty, harsh, and violent frontier and farm life would ultimately inform her stories depicting the Great Plains and those Scottish and Irish immigrants searching for the American Dream.
On the eve before what would have been the author’s 142nd birthday, The Willa Cather Foundation, located in Red Cloud, Nebraska, is hosting its second annual December Night Soup Showdown. The free event will take place this Sunday, December 6 inside the Red Cloud Historic Opera House, part of the Willa Cather Foundation. (The Opera House closed in 1916, and remained shuttered until it was lovingly restored in 2003. Now the space welcomes traveling exhibits, musicals, and soup showdowns.)
Foundation development director Marianne Reynolds explained that the Showdown was created to simultaneously celebrate Cather’s birthday and to provide a sense of community. “It’s cold in Nebraska, and the Showdown is a wonderful way to bring people together in the wintertime, to remember Willa Cather, and to have some soup.” While local Roger Bohrer took home the inaugural trophy last year for his seafood chowder, this year’s competition looks fierce: 11 entrants (no professionals), including a five-alarm team of chili-cooking firemen, schoolteachers, and a group called “Santa’s Little Helpers” will bring large roasters of potage to the Opera House, where voting is calculated by how much money each contestant collects in their respective jars. All proceeds from the event go to the Willa Cather Foundation and to fund educational programs at the nearby Auld Public Library. “We hope this will also encourage people to come back and visit us in October 2016,” when the National Willa Cather Center will open its doors as a vibrant arts and educational center. Groundbreaking for the new facility took place in July, and the capital campaign raised nearly 6.5 million dollars for the space. “The community came together for us,” said Reynolds. And next fall they will have a new space to warm up together while enjoying Cather’s enduring legacy.
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Reprinted with permission from Fine Books & Collections, Barbara Basbanes Richter, author