Season To Taste: The Soupman Cometh
Who knew that a series of Friday night dinners would be the inspiration for a burgeoning soup-making empire? Five years ago, David Ansel was searching for his calling. After following his graduate-student girlfriend to Austin, Texas, the funky, hipster-slacker arts capital of the Southwest, Ansel found himself yet another nameless, soulless employee in one of the city’s many high-tech companies. The relationship didn’t last and he quit the job, but Austin became his home, the perfect place for someone who prides himself on living a thoughtful, alternative, free-spirited lifestyle in his neighborhood of Bouldin Creek.
Around the same time, ansel, who says he grew up in a “kugel-and-cholent, hard-core holidays kind of home” in Baltimore, found a way to connect the growing number of unaffiliated but strongly identified Gen-X Jews drawn to the area’s relaxed neighborhood vibe and strong emphasis on community.
“South Austin wasn’t the Jewish part of town,” says Ansel, in contrast to the wealthier northern suburbs populated by the likes of personal-computing billionaire Michael Dell. So he and a couple of friends started South Austin Shabbats, a pot-luck Friday night gathering that began as a casual dinner and became an informal social network of hundreds. As the dinners grew, Ansel—who had no formal culinary training but loves cooking—increasingly found himself stirring the pot, garnering compliments for his improvised concoctions.
Fast-forward a couple of years. On a whim motivated in principle by a rapidly depleting bank balance, he sent an e-mail to friends offering to deliver soup to their homes—on his bicycle. Seventeen people responded that first week, and the Soup Peddler was born. Soon Ansel and his crew were delivering steaming hot, recyclable buckets all over Austin. He became a local celebrity and was even immortalized in a popular Austin stage production. Inspired by his world travels, a natural curiosity and a passion for food anthropology, Ansel developed a rainbow coalition of soups, like Feijoada from Brazil and Greek Avgolemono. “Soup is the perfect metaphor for community,” says Ansel. “Here I was serving Ramadan soup to people who had never even heard of it before, all delivered to their door on two wheels.”
Peddling (if not pedaling) has a long and well-known Jewish tradition, and the connection isn’t lost on Ansel. The title of his new book, The Soup Peddler’s Slow & Difficult Soups, is a paean to the slow food movement and its belief that coming to the table for wholesome food is an antidote for much of what ails society today. “The Shabbat dinners make so much sense in retrospect in figuring out how I got here,” says Ansel.
The book is also a comical, semi-fictional account of the growth of his business, peppered with 35 recipes and tales of Austin’s quirkiest characters. And whether it’s in recipes for turkey kreplach, schav or matza ball soup, or in his retelling of an exchange with a proselytizing Austin street preacher over the story of Esau and his lentil soup, his Jewish heritage is on constant display.
The Soup Peddler, Inc. (www.souppeddler.com) now employs a dozen people and has a customer base of over 2,000, of whom 700 order on any given week. The “President and Principal Soup Maker” stopped counting the gallons around the time the delivery bicycles were replaced with shiny orange refrigerated trucks. But Ansel can still be seen streaking to and from work on two wheels, and he still makes bicycle deliveries at least once a week.
Ansel sees his success as a triumph of the community-based, counterculture-loving David over the Goliath that is the greater universe—one overrun with take-out boxes, mega-corporations and people who live isolated behind the walls of their homes. “It’s about how sharing yourself in this way foments tikkun olam,” he writes in his book’s introduction. This Hanukka, invite friends over for a steaming bowl of this apricot lentil soup—the perfect accompaniment to a plate of crisp latkes.
Armenian Apricot Soup
Take care not to oversalt the soup. The right amount will bring out the flavor but leave the onions in the background.
1 TB extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, diced
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 TB ground cumin
3 cups red lentils, rinsed
10 cups water
12 oz dried apricots, chopped
- Heat the oil in your soup pot over medium heat, then stir in the onions and carrots. Sauté for about 10 minutes. Add the cumin and stir well. Decrease the heat, cover and let the vegetables sweat for 10 minutes.
- Add the lentils and pour in enough of the water to cover. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for about 20 minutes or until the lentils and carrots are tender. Add more of the water as needed as the lentils soften and expand.
- Remove from the heat, stir in the apricots and any remaining water, and season with salt.
- Use an immersion blender or, working in batches, purée in a regular blender until smooth.
Reprinted from The Soup Peddler’s Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes & Reveries by David Ansel (Ten Speed Press).