The first Soup Peddler article.
by Spike Gillespie
Warhol had his soup trip, all those red and white cans. Oh, but it was about so much more than the soup.
Likewise, David Ansel, a.k.a. The Soup Peddler, has his soup trip, dozens of gallons of it painstakingly made weekly, ingredients prepped by hand, stirred with a paddle big and sturdy enough to row a boat, mixed in pots spacious enough to bathe newborn triplets.
And oh, it's about so much more than the soup.
Like a whole lot of other folks, Ansel moved to Austin a few years ago, sustaining himself with a computer gig. Unlike a whole lot of those same folks who fled with the tech bust, Ansel stuck around and made some big life changes.
Which is to say, Ansel accidentally turned into a happy cliche with the following specs: he's become a riches-to-rags computer geek turned yoga instructor and bicycle-deliverer-of-homemade-soup, a victim of the magic of Austin wackiness.
He knows it sounds goofy. He doesn't care. It feels good. Real good. For him. For a steadily growing list of South Austin clients on his soup route who count on Sunday deliveries: two quarts, ten bucks, be sure to leave a cooler if you aren't going to be home.
Besides the scientifically proven health value of eating a big bowl of vegetarian soup compared with, say, a sixteen-ounce steak, rare, Ansel says other, less quantifiable qualities make soup good for you. "There are the rational explanations for why soup is good food and then there are the subjective," he says. "Like having something warm in your hands, like feeling steam on your face, and the olfactory sensation."
Andrew Grigsby, Bouldin neighbor, friend of Ansel, and customer from the get-go (along with roommates Lisa and Ilene), says when the bike pulls up on Sundays, it's a big deal.
"This Sunday was perfect, seventy and sunny," he says. "Lisa ran out to the street saying, 'It's the Soup Peddler! It's the Soup Peddler!' He's like the ice cream man for adults.
Grigsby says the black bean soup was exceptional (he wanted to say fabulous but feared being associated with George W. Bush, who, it was recently reported, over uses the "f" word to describe everything from the U.S. military to his wife, Laura, the former librarian).
Ansel's seed of transformation was planted almost immediately upon arrival in Texas. Beshert, a Yiddish word meaning "a relationship that is meant to be," typically applies to romance. But Ansel uses it to capture the essence of what happened to him when, perusing the Sunday ads for a place to live, he happened upon a very stunning setup in South Austin.
There was a room available in the house formerly owned by David Richards (former Texas Governor Ann Richard's ex), a magical fortress upon a hill on Mary Street, with a spectacular view of the city, little balconies, and even a dog that is so well-behaved she seems to have come straight from Central Casting. He got the slot.
His roommate, "turned me on to yoga and sent me to an acting class." Apparently, these were the keys waiting to unlock Ansel's inner-Austinite, a side of him that responded very well to those suggestions, as he leapt forth and seized an alternative lifestyle.
But, Ansel encountered a pretty predictable stumbling block to the groovy life. One day, about two months ago, after being out of the full-time workforce for more than a year, he recalls, "I looked at my bank account and there was sixty dollars in it." Teaching yoga and writing occasional freelance pieces wasn't paying the bills.
So he asked himself, "What can I do?"
Soup Subscription Service by Savory Soul Sustenance was born, "the parent company" (a company of one) of The Soup Peddler. Ansel explains the business is based on "the slow food movement," an international movement driven by regular folks who have the "desire to feel a connection to the food they eat, the people they eat it with, and the people that make the food."
Each week's soup, from concept-to-delivery, is an exercise in research, philosophizing, and damn hard work. All the recipes are vegetarian and all are created from studying other recipes, experimenting, and adding secret ingredients until Ansel is satisfied that he's nailed some signature something.
"You throw in what you think is good and trust that it will be good," says Ansel. "There's a leap of faith. You know if you put the best ingredients in, it's going to gel."
For each soup, he writes up a description, far from your basic ingredient list. There's a little history, a little lore, and some serving suggestions, too. Take the Mushroom Barley: "Domesticated eight thousand years ago from its wild ancestor in the Fertile Crescent, it was the food of the times of the Old Testament." The description goes on to mention how Jesus fed five thousand folks with five loaves of barley, a feat Ansel calls "real back-in-the-day grain dramatics."
Continuing along the happy cliche theme, his biggest secret ingredient most likely is... here it comes... we warned you... love. Yep. As customer Andrew Grigsby says, "I'm pretty sure I can taste the care that goes into the soup."
Joe Rubio agrees. The owner of the extremely popular downtown restaurant, Thai Passion, 620 Congress Ave., Rubio first encountered Ansel in a nice, kismety way (crank up the Stevie Nicks tunes). Ansel was hanging a yoga flier at the restaurant. Rubio wanted to know more about Ansel's yoga classes. Rubio fed Anselo. Ansel explained his new life. Rubio got excited about the soup.
Now, after a month of meetings, Rubio is partnering with Ansel to expand The Soup Peddler. "The concept he put together is so beautiful," says Rubio. "I'm just blown away. The heart of this is truly him. I'm supporting him to make it more accessible to a larger audience. To see him in there stirring that soup is beautiful to watch. This fire he has, it's infectious."
Not bad for a guy who only learned to cook ten years ago, when necessity drove him and his college rommates to learn to feed themselves properly. He laughingly recalls a favorite invention, Duck Fuck Goo--chicken with rice, wrapped in a tortilla "before I knew what a tortilla was." He chuckles.
Now he's got intimate knowledge of the tortilla, not to mention other Mexican food. A recent trip to Real de Catorce, Mexico, inspired the birth of his business. There, he watched a woman on the street making and selling gorditas (thick, hand-patted cakes of masa, a flour made of dried, ground corn).
Back across the border, he and his travel mates found themselves navigating a highway cloverleaf, winding up with four different fast-food-restaurant options, obviously serving no food from an identifiable origin (certainly nothing local). The contrast of this pre-fab food to the homemade Mexican street food had an impact.
Back in Austin, working on a Saturday night, music blasting, Ansel chops about seventeen million pounds of onions for the recipe of the week, Five Onion Soup (for which his description will explore the onion as metaphor). It will be many hours before the soup is ready for parceling out into two-quart containers for Sunday's delivery.
Delivering might be the best--though certainly not the easiest--part of Ansel's job. He loads up two coolers full of soup onto the trailer hitched to his bicycle, replete with Maryland license plate attached to milk crate of questionable origin attached to bike bumper.
First stop: Leeann Atherton, herself a South Austin notable, well known for singing and barn dances. Given that she lives a good stretch south down the road, Ansel's definition of "neighborhood delivery" is rather broad. But just as Mister Rogers' postal pal Mr. McFeely never complained, Ansel takes to the streets with determination, a smile, and that groovy attitude of his.
Gesturing at a car-squashed possum, for instance, he sums up, "One instant of possum panic followed by eternal bliss." Don't worry--he's not annoyingly New Age. He's just looking for life's lessons everywhere, and being on a bicycle laden with a heavy load slows him down enough to spot many things he might not otherwise notice.
Atherton and her clan are delighted to see Ansel, and everyone gathers to greet him and heap compliments on last week'ssoup. Of the delivery method Atherton exclaims, "It makes the service more awesome."
Ansel stops to discuss serving suggestions. Atherton describes using some of last week's veggie chili to stuff a poblano. The discussion feeds Ansel on a couple of levels. It lets him know he's meeting his slow-food goal. It also makes him an integral part of his neighborhood.
One afternoon, after a long day of delivery in the rain, he writes: "A thousand stories in South Austin, neatly tucked into little unassuming houses. Last week during deliveries, I came upon a Cape Breton (Island, Nova Scotia) Music recital going on in someone's living room. It had been a while, of course, since I had come upon a Cape Breton Music recital, so I stayed and listened awhile."
Ansel knows The Soup Peddler "could not have happened many places." It's more than a soup thing. It's a love thing. It's an Austin thing. And he says of his new hometown, "I have a strange feeling I'm not ever going to leave."