Yalonda Long was saved by her soup. It says so on every jar. Her unusual product line tells a potent story about an effervescent personality. Oh, and incidentally, her soup is really delicious and healthy.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I bought a few jars of In the Soup, Yo's creation, at Roxie's Market. She and her mate Casey Puckett had set up a tasting table, and we tried a few samples. Hungry after a day of skiing, we picked up an easy dinner, made by Yo.
We loved the Transcend Daal, a curry-flavored lentil concoction that sure curried our favor. We savored the flavor of this local entrepreneur and took heed of her strong personal optimism. Intrigued by her story, I asked Yo for an interview. She responded with a dinner invitation at her home, where she and Casey and a bevy of their kids live in a former church building, complete with a steeple, in Old Town Basalt.
Yo greeted us at the door with a welcoming smile that led us into the redolent atmosphere of lasagna baking (not soup as we had suspected). My wife and I soon learned that Yo derives deep pleasure and serious gratification from cooking practically anything. She turns out gourmet dishes the way Casey turns out ski-racing medals, which happened to festoon their Christmas tree.
It took the Great Recession of 2008 to compel Yo to cook publicly.
"When I lost everything, I got a little surly over the state of the world," she says.
She darkly calls this chapter of her life "The American Nightmare," the antipathy of the American dream she had been living as a top real estate agent.
"It wasn't just what I went through," she allows, "but what a lot of people went through."
Yo lost her house, her car, her income and her marriage. She found herself a single mother of two with the Bank of America breathing down her neck. Seeking occasional sustenance from a popcorn machine at a local store, she didn't know where her next dollar would come from. Eventually other values gained prominence over the dollar but not until she had made her statement in art.
Yo decided to express her angst at a locals' art show. She bought an American flag from the Aspen Thrift Shop at a greatly discounted $4 ("It was all the money I had," she says) and fashioned it into an art piece that incorporated crumpled mortgage documents (foreclosure sale notice and letter of debt) that marked her financial misery.
"I love my country, but I wanted to make a statement," she says, pointing to the flag sculpture that now hangs on her wall. "I made that, and then I let it all go, along with the humiliation and the fear. When it was done, I didn't lose myself or the love of my country."
Letting go meant taking hold of something else, so Yo began making soup to sell at farmers markets, stirring the kettle, honing recipes, pouring her soul into jars.
"I have always had an affection for the community of food. Feeding people is healing. It's me going back to essence. It's me living in a church," she laughs.
Yo named her soup with humor. In the Soup, which is the brand, implies dire straits. Individual flavors - Alimony Minestrone, Tantrum Thai, Bankrupt Butternut - poke fun at personal disaster.
"Moral bankruptcy," she explains, "will get one in the soup."
When Casey met Yo, he recognized the passion she put into every jar and inspired her to go commercial. Together they promote In the Soup, which has since moved into major grocery stores.
Yo is no longer stirring the kettles. That's done in huge vats in Denver, where the soup is mass produced, but with the same attention to organic health and distinctive flavors that Yo stirred together as the natural chef she is.
"This is giving back," she says with total assurance. "This is doing something worthy, giving back to the community. I used to get accolades for real estate, but this is a better thing to do."
Paul Andersen's column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.