The scents of soups — bean and ham, tomato basil and chili — wafted past the tables and weaved their way into the conversations Sunday evening in downtown Cortland.
It was a casual evening with a band, some books and 400 neighbors chilling as the sun set.
After a shower-filled day threatened to dilute the 90 gallons of soup provided by nine restaurants, the streets dried, the clouds dissipated and the evening turned sunny enough to encourage people to head to Court Street, yet cool enough — 59 degrees — so that a mug of soup was a welcome hand warmer.
“We need something like this,” Bud Diescher said as his wife, Karen, ladled bean and ham soup into mugs. The soup with ham he smoked himself for Easy Street restaurant, sure, but mostly he meant the event: “It’s nice to hear about the concerts and stuff. There’s a lot going on.”
And that’s nice in a world that can be filled with darkness: mass shootings; political schisms, uncertain economies.
The conversations were laid back: discussions of what the soup was like, the cast on a person’s foot, appreciation of the music (a rock band, naturally).
Cortland police Sgt. Tony Natoli held the hand of his son, 2-year-old Dexter, as wife Jessica held the other, trading notes with friends and neighbors.
Mat Simpson of Cortland takes a cup of ham and bean soup Sunday from Karen Diescher of Easy Street restaurant at a community picnic in Cortland.
Off in one corner, Tammy Sickmon, interim director of the Cortland Free Library, read “Stone Soup” to children wearing an apron and standing over a cauldron into which she had kids add ingredients.
Nearby, others painted rocks as part of the Cortland Rock Project coordinated by Cinch Art Space of Cortland. The idea is to spread the rocks, and a little creativity, to be discovered around the area.
“I want to be a part of a community,” Raina Barber of Truxton said as 3-year-old Sienna stuffed bread into a chili-smeared mouth. This was the sort of event the Barbers, including husband Shaun and 9-year-old Peyton, do all the time, from the Pumpkin Festival in the fall to the Dairy Parade that Peyton will march in Tuesday with her softball team.
The Stone Soup event began as a response to an incident last year at the library, where police were called when a 2-year-old boy threw a fit. The boy’s mother, Melissa Kiser, suggested racism may have been a factor.
Community Oriented Police Officer Jesse Abbott offered up the idea of a community picnic so strangers could get to know each other and police, and Tammy Timmerman, president of the Cortland County Tavern and Restaurant Association, suggested stone soup, based on a West Virginia event.
“I think it’s important the community sticks together and comes together,” said Mat Simpson of Cortland over a mug of soup.
The West Virginia event drew 250 or 300 people in the dead of winter, Abbott said, and he hoped to do better Sunday. Done: 300 mugs with spoons were given away in minutes, and other diners had to use plastic foam bowls. But really, the soup was just an excuse to get together.
“We’re really lucky with this,” Abbott said as he headed to help Sickmon read to kids. “By the looks of it, this’ll be an annual event.”