I love soup. I love eating soup, I love making soup, I love thinking about making soup. I also love food memoirs. So David Ansel's The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes & Reveries, a food memoir/soup cookbook should offer me the chance to wallow in great bowls of heaven, right? I mean we've got a Baltimore Jew in Austin, Texas offering a different soup each week to his soup-subscribers, which he delivers by bicycle. Come on! How cool is that? Well apparently not quite cool enough.
Food memoir readers look for two things in the stories they read:
1. interesting situations with interesting people
2. detailed descriptions of food in terms of history, preparation, and consumption
And it helps if 1 and 2 are combined in meaningful ways. Usually not much of a problem for food memoirists.
However, even though Ansel has the material for both, he rarely follows through on either. It's almost as if he doesn't really believe that his readers would be interested enough to stick with stories told in depth. This is frustrating because his story and his food appear to be well worth reading (and writing) about.
The Introduction promises a recognizable story for anyone who comes to the food business a little bit later in lifeâ€”later than eighteenâ€”and anyone who is thinking about making a career change in order to make a life-change. Ansel briefly tells us that, in his late twenties, he left his work in the software industry for a life more involved with the outside world. He traveled, wrote, taught yoga, and then, when his money was running low, he got the idea for the soup business. He'd had no formal training, but apparently had paid close attention to local foods during his travels and was confident in his soup skills: â€œSo with all that financial desperation and valuable inexperience behind me, I sent out an email message to friends and neighbors, saying, â€˜I'll bring you some soup next Sunday for ten bucks. Plus, I'll bring it to you on my bike.'â€ He is clever, optimistic, and completely unprepared. I'm hooked. I can't wait to read about how he actually delivers the soup, what he hauls them in, if the soups are kept hot and if so how, how much soup each â€œsoupieâ€ gets, who are the soupies and why do they get soup delivered. However, I'll have to wait and, even then, the answers are either incomplete or completely absent.
The book is divided into the soup-making months of his second year in business, and each section has our hero peddling around town, wondering what to cook and what's up with his friends and neighbors who are the focus of the book. His South Austin community of Bouldin Creek is filled with â€œcharacters,â€ who apparently spend their days kicking back at their local café, junk shops, and swimming hole while philosophizing about life and giving him advice.
Some have names like Brother Dwayne, a sidewalk preacher Leslie, the owner of the local café Matt Korn, the barrista and Renee and Kevin, the b & b owners. Others have nicknames like Chicken Man Monk the drunk and his â€œarchenemy,â€ Ice Cream Man. If you lived in South Austin, you'd probably be tickled by these slightly cartoony snippets because you'd recognize all the people and places. But I don't and I wasn't.
Too many of the stories are simply dead-ended meanders through the â€œhipsterâ€ part of his neighborhood. It's like visiting a friend for the weekend who introduces you to everyone in the community twice. You get a few anecdotes here and there to help you identify them when you meet them again the next day, but that's about it. It's frustrating because some of these people seemed actually interesting, but the book doesn't seem to want to get bogged down with anything like real people.
When Soup Man (more a two-dimensional character than Ansel himself, I trust) calls Chicken Man to get chickens for his Caldo de Pollo, C. Man says he'd like to help out but â€œThere's quite a bit of unrest in the coop these days and there doesn't seem to be a diplomatic solution.â€ When S. Man tries to comprehend the problem, C. Man brushes him off by saying that it's complicated and that you needed to be present to â€œpick up the vibe.â€ After remarking that S. Man wouldn't want to pass the stress the chickens were experiencing on to his customers, C Man hangs up. So S. Man buys his chickens elsewhere. The end. There might be those who find the brief and pointless charming, but not this reader. Maybe this is a Zen kind of thing: the sound of half a story losing interest.
But some yarns are actually quite likeable and even reveal something about the people involved. When it turns 80 degrees in January, any good soup peddler would get frustrated and wonder if it was nuts to be a soup peddler in Austin instead of Portland or Berkeley. Leslie, the café owner, tells him about the time she and her partner were so broke their first week that they didn't have a safe yet. They decided that no one would look in the broiler under the stove, so they hid the cash drawer there at night. And, you guessed it, one morning awhile after she'd put the potato hash in the oven they smelled something really bad. The drawer had melted and the money was charred. She walked down to the creek and cried. Then she told herself that she was going to look back on this one day and laugh. And today she did. Nice little story. Nice way to cheer up a friend.
And then there's the description of the non-Jewish B & B owners, Kevin and Renee, who wanted to serve a â€œtraditional mealâ€ to go with the Passover week's matzoh ball soup. He advises them that they'd need to start with a live carp for the gefilte fish and sacrifice a lamb. Unlike the ancient Jews, Kevin used a Bobcat (excavator) to dig the hole for the lamb's roasting pit: â€œThey probably didn't have limestone to deal with,â€ and Renee uses riding spurs to make the track marks on matzohs cut in the shape of Texas. A bit later, Renee calls out to her husband, â€œWe have some people checking in later today. Would you mind terribly killing the carp that's in the bathtub in number eight?â€ As the smell of roast lamb rises, Kevin holds up his beer and a jar of leftover lamb's blood and declares, â€œI just love this Passover business. You Jews really know how to throw a party!â€ As I said before, Ansel has the material I just wish he'd used more of it, taken the time to tell us more about fewer people.
Then there's the question of what's real. Of course memoirs are filled with alterations, compressions, and even some lies. But when a memoirist tells us, from time to time, that something really did happen, that it's a true story, you start to wonder why you're reading all the other stuff. Near the beginning, we get an odd and not all that interesting little anecdote about a mysterious woman saying â€œBouktoufâ€ to him as he complains in the café about looking for a soup to start off his new season. The recipe for Bouktouf that follows begins, â€œIn truth, I came upon this perennial favorite of the Soupies using my most trusted and successful research technique: theft from a grandmother.â€ Why couldn't we just have gotten the story of Brigitte's Algerian Jewish grandmother in the first place? And what else in the book isn't true? Or necessary?
As for the recipes, Ansel writes that the â€œslow and difficultâ€ part of his title is a comment on the fast-food culture and â€œthe shallowing of our lifestyles. . . â€œ He worries that â€œas we lose knowledge of our foodways, we risk a devolution of the human spirit. And I, for one, don't want to end up looking like Devo.â€ (I'm not too crazy about his writing style, but I get his point). The phrase also refers to his method of delivering soupâ€”the bicycle. Most of the soups do take some time to make, but aren't particularly difficult. The â€œChompy-Chomp Black Bean Soupâ€ is actually a real last-minute dish made with canned diced tomatoes and canned black beans (and, at two tablespoons, too much cumin for my taste), but most call for a substantial but not unreasonable amount of prep and simmering. There are a good number of vegetarian soups and a rather out-sized number of fish-based ones.
Along with the unusual soups like Armenian Apricot, Shorbat Rumman (an Iraqi yellow split pea soup with spinach, mint and pomegranate syrup), and Pumpkin-Pear, he gives his solid interpretations of familiar dishes like chowders, chilis, and a Green Split Pea that calls for 8 cups of ham stock. I've made a fair number of Minestrones, and his recipe may actually be my favorite. It's appropriately starchy and the use of ground, toasted fennel seeds seems to pull all the other vegetable and bean tastes together. Really tasty.
One of the most-time consuming recipes is for the â€œSmoked Duck and Andouille Gumbo.â€ He advises the reader to begin the morning with a beer: â€œThink about this: You're going to be at this all day long. Make a party of it. Plus, if you're going to all this trouble, you ought to double or triple the recipe and invite all your friends over.â€ Besides making a stock with scavenged bird carcasses, you've got to first steam a quartered duck and then smoke it. You'll be using the fat dripped from the steaming for the roux. He calls for a really, really dark roux that should look and taste â€œlike burnt mud.â€ Ok, not an appealing thought, even if it will be â€œthe best damn burnt mud you've ever had.â€ His recipes clearly do not cater to the Good Housekeeping crowd.
Possibly the most problematic, at least on the surface, is the recipe for â€œAjiaco.â€ A chicken soup with corn and potatoes isn't all that difficult, but the main ingredient, guascas, is a Columbian herb that's really hard to find and he offers no substitute. I'd maybe expect this in a specialty cookbook or one by a famous chef who has an infamously expensive restaurant, but not in a funky little soup book. It's irritating. But it's also kind of great. If you want to taste this authentic Columbian soup, you've got to respect the ingredients.
The recipes are good, but the memoir part just doesn't know whether it wants to be taken seriously or not. Ansel claims to respect cultures and histories, but denies readers most of the real histories of the soups and how he came by them. Clearly he respects food and the process of making it, but doesn't spend nearly as much time as he could on his experiences in a borrowed kitchen, making all these soups by hand and alone. The writing style is really all over the place. Sometimes it's clear and straightforward, letting the stories themselves make the point, and other times it's painfully cute and self-conscious, like a funky, Sixties neighborhood newsletter, complete with comic-book renderings of the locals. About a third of the way through, he describes a Christmas gathering in a neighborhood home and writes: â€œI felt like I had walked into a living portrait, a warm-weather Lake Wobegon, and that I, now, was one of the characters. It felt good and simple to me that I was the neighborhood soup man.â€ His sense of community is very real and praiseworthy. But Garrison Keillor won't be looking over his shoulder.