More Back Story About The Soup Peddler

In my spare moments, reflections about this germ of an idea which begat a project which begat a story which begat a business lead me to consider how and why it all happened. What were the currents of my life that carried me to this shore? You'd think that since I just wrote a book, I would have already told this story... alas, I either forgot to log these thoughts in Slow & Difficult Soups or maybe I hadn't had them yet.

You see, it did occur to me that I was inspired to start the project by the Gordita Lady of Real de Catorce, since that experience occurred so close to the genesis of the Soup Peddler. However, I failed to consider, for example, that the too successful South Austin Shabbat group that I and a few friends formed was major fuel for my love of the intertwined nature of food and community. I completely forgot that a homeless fortune teller in Washington, D.C. informed me years ago that "he could see from my forehead that I would use my mathematics to be the spoon that stirs the alphabet soup of the world." And it utterly escaped me that some experiences with a little South African group called Paballo Ya Batho would point me in the direction of soupmaking... and delivery.

During my "Wandering Years", I spent about three months in and around Johannesburg, South Africa, visiting a close friend from college, Susanna. Actually, we went to different schools together. She was working as an investment banker and had a nice breezy house in the hip Melville suburb, a perfect place for a Wandering Jew with way too much time on his hands. I spent those months travelling to and from Cape Town, the Transkei, the Drakensburg, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and various other side trips. Every Wednesday night that found me in Johannesburg, Susanna took me down to her downtown church to meet with the good folks of Paballo.

Once there, we would gather in a circle, around a single candle, in one of the basement storage rooms to discuss the logistics of the evening's task and everyone's roles. Paballo Ya Batho, seSotho for "Caring for the People", is a little ministry that uses two vans and four big soup pots to feed (quite tasty) lentil soup, bread, light medical care, and moral support to hundreds of homeless each week in camps scattered around downtown Johannesburg.

I had never seen pots of soup so big! We lugged everything up into the trucks and set out on the very first soup delivery route of my life. A little different scene than the idyllic Austin neighborhoods in which we currently ply our trade... when we arrived at each camp, we'd throw open the back doors of the van and I'd perch on the bumper, ladling out styrofoam cups of the (really, quite tasty) lentil soup as fast as I could. The folks that lined up were in varying degrees of bad shape... various combinations of hunger, exhaustion, fear, and gasoline-huffing colored their expressions and moods. Lots of these folks were refugees from the countryside, be it South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, or Malawi. Some came and went without a word, but some stopped and their eyes clung to yours with gratitude.

The whole experience, as you can well imagine, was depressing. The conditions were really rough. I felt like an imposter, there to provide relief when convenient, then off to continue my travels when the whim struck me. Really ashamed. Most of the other members of Paballo came from similar situations as the recipients of the soup that night... now with a leg barely up, they spent so much energy and time helping those just a rung below on the ladder.

The end of the evening, once back in the church basement, found us gathered again in the circle, comparing notes about the camps and our personal impressions. I was usually speechless in my shame, but the warmth and brotherhood in the room, in the circle, made me feel somehow connected to the cause. At the end of the meeting we arose to hold hands while several of the members, from a local performance troupe, led us in a transporting Zulu version of The Lord's Prayer.

The warmth of that memory, the beauty of the voices and the purity of that feeling of community lead me to include Paballo as one of the recipients of the Second Annual Soupie Cookbook. I look forward to sharing some of our community's wealth and strength with an organization, much like Austin's own Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which is a proud little pebble in the vast sea of human privation.