Chef Battle With Jeff Blank

Venison battle against the legendary Jeff Blank of Hudson's on the Bend at the 2007 Hill Country Wine and Food Festival... April Fools' Day and Passover Eve collided for this event

Rabid, tipsy Soup Peddler devotees crowded the main stage tent, pounding the tables with approval...

Ansel and Blank furiously tried to out-cook each other with the theme ingredient, venison... Chef Blank served tea-smoked, espresso-rubbed venison backstrap with beurre blanc... Ansel reached into his bag of tricks for the world's first venison barbacoa stuffed matzoh ball soup...

It was a humbling learning experience for the young, inexperienced Ansel...

But the crowd went wild for the reenactment of the little-known 11th plague visited upon the Pharoah, the dreaded walking matzoh balls.

The real winner was the crowd, who got to witness a fun and strange pairing for Mr. Blank, who is the Lou Gehrig, nay, the Cal Ripken of the Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, having performed every year in the festival's history.

Wine, food fair ends on sweet, sunny note
More than 5,000 soak up sun and grub as food festival winds down

By Kitty Crider


Monday, April 02, 2007

GEORGETOWN — South Austin Soup Peddler David Ansel and Hudson's on the Bend restaurant chef/owner Jeff Blank had a hokey, smoky smackdown Sunday afternoon, packing a culinary tent to standing-room only as the two popular cut-up chefs attempted to outcook each other with venison at the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Fair in San Gabriel Park.

Ansel — wearing a khaki sports vest filled with eggs, spices, a pepper grinder, and a variety of spoons and tools, including a hammer — whipped up venison-stuffed matzo ball soup. Blank, in his starched white chef's coat, responded with a smoked venison tenderloin, rubbed with chocolate, ancho chili and coffee. He labeled it a "mochachino wrapped around protein" and smoked it in a stove-top box with wood chips and tea.

"It may smell like Willie's picnic," Blank noted.

The banter and cooking battle were friendly, though — and, at times, dramatic. While Blank flamed a sauce, Ansel went for South Austin drama with a lit sparkler stuck in a soup pot handle. The audience of 100 wine and food lovers cheered its approval.

2007 SXSW Band Name Prize Winner

It is getting harder and harder, as each day passes, to come up with an original name for your product, your restaurant, or your company... in these days of information overload, no combination of English words is safe from being trademarked or turned into a domain name. Many companies are forced to create meaningful, focus group tested new words... Accenture, Levitra, Viagra... restaurants are forced to scour the language for frugal non sequitur, taking on names like Gab, Two, and Ovum. And rock bands are the saddest subject... they are the most desperate to catch notice and stand out of the crowd.

This is one of my favorite times of year in Austin, when South by Southwest Music Festival brings us an international showcase of the best and worst band names in the world. I often wonder how rock bands, often incredibly dysfunctional families, settle on a name. Imagine if your family had to come up with a marketable name for itself... The Smiths is already taken, so what do you do? Well, you workshop it a bit... a brainstorming session where you write mission words on whiteboards. Maybe try to get some alliteration in there. Tired & The Tasmanian Devils. Bankroll & The DNA Receptacles. Early Birds & The Whippersnappers. See, at least you have something to draw from... bands have all the dysfunction and none of the glue, none of the history. They have to conjure their names from the ether.

Last year's Soup Peddler SXSW Band Name winner is still quite close to my heart, and difficult to beat... Crapulence. It says so much. Its literal denotation is "the state of being hung over". We can easily deduce the provenance of the name. But there is more... it is a concatenation of the words "Crap" and "Excellence", a wily reference to the notion that in the ironical world of rock and/or roll, failure is indeed the new success. This is a band name that you can easily visualize in Spinal Tap font, headlining a Monsters of Rock stadium tour. And yet, it is laced with humility. It is perfect.

This year's two thousand entrants into the Soup Peddler Band Name Contest gave me great joy. Most of the names caused me to picture the parents of the band members speaking with their co-workers. "So what is little Jimmy up to?" "Well, his band is doing well, they're going down to Austin to make it big." "What's his band's name?" "The Heathens." "Oh, that's... very nice. I remember him in the church choir, he was always such a charming young man."

So on to this year's contestants... it took me a good while to wade through the death theme... we have Dead Bodies, Dead Child, Deadly Syndrome, Dead Man, Dead Meadow, The Deaths, Death Ships, last year's Die! Die! Die!, Die Mannequin, and the slightly kinder, gentler The Comas. There's the R-rated section consisting of Holy S*#t, Holy F#&k, F#&ked Up, and two of the heavyweight contenders for this year's prize, Steaming Wolf P&*is and Psychedelic Horses^&t. We had a strong showing in the entertaining Intimidator Category, with entries from This Will Destroy You, I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House, and How I Became The Bomb. A curious and disturbing pattern of obviously computer macro generated band names like Architecture in Helsinki, Art in Manila, Tennis and the Mennonites, and Muck and the Mires. The award for Best Comeback Band Name goes to Chairs of Perception, formerly The Urinals. Good call on that one.

The most positive development this year was the proliferation of cute, lighthearted band names. I was delighted by such entries as Mr. Pookie & Mr. Lucci, Mew, Best Fwends, Frightened Rabbit, Hot Puppies, Roxy Cottontail, Oh No! Oh My!, Two Cow Garage, and Mistress Stephanie And Her Melodic Cats. The Miscellany Category found some charmers like Tacks The Boy Disaster, the utterly odd Vashti Bunyan, The Faintest Ideas, Fake Problems, My!Gay!Husband!, Simian Mobile Disco, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, and the Victorian English Gentlemen's Club.

Let me wrap this up... the Grand Prize this year goes to an Austin band that has been in the competition for several years. Their name is so utterly packed with hopelessness that it makes you want to cry and rend your clothing. You want to save the band from their own black despondency, to cuddle them into a sense of optimism. This is their year... they've met with quite some critical acclaim of late and now this great kudo... the Soup Peddler's Grand Prize Band Name goes to...

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness

Firing Up The Warp Engines

I write this missive to you from the Ashton Hotel in historic downtown Fort Worth, TX. The city has a pleasing sense of clean history nowadays... no boot scrapers necessary at the doorsteps of the grand hotels anymore. I do still appreciate the accommodation of a boot scraper bolted to the front steps of a domicile, but of course I do not expect it. Incidentally, in my flights from Austin to San Antonio to Dallas to San Antonio to Dallas in the past 48 hours, the only airport that has boot jacks at the security checkpoint is the Austin-Bergstrom. Hear, hear. Everywhere else, I am forced to do the demeaning one-footed boot removal dance. Alas. I am travelling the airways of Texas to spread the gospel to the soup-swilling peoples of the "other cities" in Texas... specifically, the Central Market Cooking School Tour of San Antonio, Dallas, and Forth Worth. Houston would not have me back after last year's debacle, unfortunately. Their loss, I suppose. For some reason, I don't do well in Houston (and now, commence Houston-bashing).

I've been shuttling about to do promotional TV morning show spots to promote the classes (ineffectual, but good practice). The task at hand is to rub elbows, toss off some witticisms, and cook a batch of soup in 3.5 minutes, with two business-attired TV anchors at my elbows. As you may know, soup is a time-consuming task, and as you may know, starting up the warp engines on my pithy sense of humor is also time-consuming. But caffeine is a hell of a drug, and I believe, with the help of Daddy Starbucks, I was able to pull it off. Do the viewers wonder aloud if they want someone with that much hair flopping about making their soup? I do not know. You decide... please watch the San Antonio Living appearance here...

and the Dallas Morning Show appearance at your leisure...

But in the end, the Central Market classgoers seemed to enjoy themselves and the soup and the stories.

I arrived in Fort Worth via a hot rental car... it is a Pontiac Vibe hatchback. I had considered upgrading to the Mustang fastback, oddly my favorite new American car of late, but my sense of frugality got the best of me and I stuck with the temptingly-named Vibe. I drove to the clean and Western downtown and settled myself upon a barstool at the Flying Saucer, a welcoming beer hall. My barmate, upon hearing that I was from Austin, asked me if I had ever been to Sugar's, describing the various delights to be found there. I told him that I have, unfortunately (looking at my non-existing watch for comedic effect) been busy for the past eight years. The feller at my right, on the other hand, was intrigued by my visit and began sharing his passion for cooking and his Harlan County, Kentucky roots, and offered to share some recipes with me... Soupies of Austin may soon be sampling some down-home coal-mining country fare. We shall see.

Soup News from Around the Globe

Welcome to another edition of Soup News from Around the Globe... another in a continuing series of the wild and strange adventures of soup... our tour this week takes us from the heights of high society to the very underbelly of the lowest scurrying elements of civilization...

Our first stop is UK's Guardian, which tells the story of a $20 million soup bowl, a perfect example of Qing Empire porcelain... the managing director of a Chinese petroleum company took the prize home, we assume very carefully. The most appropriate soup to serve in such a bowl, you wonder? Perhaps Mayfair, UK's Kai Restaurant's version of Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, for nearly $200 a bowl (not likely on the Soup Peddler menu any time soon). Sea cucumber AND six-hour steamed aged abalone nestled together in a $20 million soup bowl... now you're talking soup.

The world's largest soup pot was just unveiled in Guangdong Province, China... one pot can feed over 5,000 hungry soup eaters.

Another entry in the extreme soup category finds us in New York City, downtown, at Ninja New York, where you can treat yourself and your honey to Meteorite Pot, which is a bit of Japanese clam chowder cooked at the table by an 800 degree Fahrenheit rock submerged in the soup. We wonder what kind of liability policy covers such tableside endeavors...

Lots of cocaine/soup links in recent news... this from SomaliNet, a leader in late-breaking African news... a Ghanaian tribal leader was arrested for smuggling cocaine inside cans of palm soup... while the practice of carrying rare foods on airlines is common for African travelers, somehow Accra International's security found cause to double-check this guys carry-ons... on to Massachusetts, where detectives didn't fall for the old false-bottomed can of Chunky Soup trick, which in this case held 45 bags of individual-sale-ready cocaine.

Sadly, there is never a shortage of soup-related violence to report... the always classy and curiously named Narcisco Bismark Murillo of Miami scalded his girlfriend and her son by throwing hot soup at them... quick-thinking Sharon Osbourne dodged a vicious soup attack after a production of Vagina Monologues in UK... in Fresno, CA, a soup argument was the cause of a drive-by shooting... in Brooklyn, vigilantism apparently lives when a homeless man was killed after throwing hot soup at a woman earlier in the day.

And here are the two show-stoppers for this week's installment... I'm not sure I should share this with you... DO NOT VISIT THE FOLLOWING LINK UNLESS YOU HAVE A VERY STRONG STOMACH. THERE IS A VERY DISTURBING PHOTO ON THE PAGE. IN FACT, BE SURE YOU PLACE YOUR ORDER FOR NEXT WEEK BEFORE LOOKING AT IT. IN FACT, NEVER MIND, IF YOU'RE THAT SICK THAT YOU NEED TO SEE THIS, YOU CAN EMAIL ME FOR THE LINK... a Moscow man murdered an elderly movie director, then made soup with the victim's head and kept the heart in the freezer... and for the all-time forever award for biggest soup-related loser, a Georgia dad poisoned his children's soup in order to extort Campbell's soup in a contamination suit. He is in, as you might expect, what they call deep doo-doo.

Soupie of the Month

Welcome to another edition of the Soupie of the Month Awards... this month's lucky winners are Genoka and Fern Thomassy, who drive in every week all the way from B.F.E., also known as Liberty Hill, Texas. We look forward to their visits every week when we might hear about the latest chicken dilemma or receive fresh, home-laid multicolored eggs... they look like Easter eggs but there's no dye and that's no lie. Genoka’s favorite Soup Peddler dish is Portobello Stroganoff, of which she ordered nine the last offering—they were gone in a week! She is also very protective of The Soup Peddler, defending us against local, vicious Soup Peddler wanabees... read her recent email to a copycat... copy the original is a blatant attempt to use and profit from someone else's ideas without even adding anything new of your own. My teachers used to call that plagiarism and it wasn't allowed because it was wroooong. What you're doing is really TACKY. I wish you the success you deserve.

Ouch! Note to self: Don't cross Genoka. Congratulations, Genoka and Fern, for being our Soupies of the Month!

Much Obliged...

Being a Soupie carries responsibility. It's not just a lackadaisical "me, me, me" sort of thing... for example, you are the recruiting corps for our marketing department, you are the wind beneath our wings, you are obliged to perform soup research when you travel abroad, you are morally bound to steal recipes from family members and unsuspecting chefs to share with the rest of the Soupies. That is how we have such great recipes as our Bouktouf, Asopao, Armenian Apricot, and Green Chile Stew.

The Tarrytown Goetzels, who essentially embody the apogee of the Soupie Mindset, took it upon themselves to travel to Iceland in search of the famed kakosupa, which is on our menu this week, perhaps as a Valentine's Night soup course. Additionally, they often leave still-warm cookies and brownies on their porch for our delivery folks.

In other news, great tragedy has beset the soup world... the inventor of the instant ramen noodle, Momofuku Ando, died last week at age 96. Who says a little deep-fried noodle and MSG is bad for you? He just retired as chairman of Nissin Foods last year, and probably did alright for himself... over 85 billion (that's with a "b", folks) packs of ramen were sold worldwide in 2005 alone.
Another Soupie responsibility... reading assignments. People, I would REALLY love for you to set aside some time to read Michael Pollan's (author of Botany of Desire and Omnivore's Dilemma) article in last Sunday's NY Times Magazine. It has been the most emailed article in the Times all week, which is a really good thing, and it encapsulates our abiding passion in real food, which does not deign to make nutritional health claims. You can read the article here. It's a long article, so settle in.

For The Birds

It has been a tough week for birds in Austin. Monday morning, we all awoke to news of a mysterious bird kill which closed downtown for most of the morning. Our team of crack reporters captured the shocking image of the hazmat team in action at right. You can only imagine the stench. Most of the affected birds were, fortunately, only grackles, which are universally recognized as a force of evil. Their nefarious squawks are harbingers of doom, and their aggressive behavior places them well outside the societal norms established by most of the bird population. They are the baboons of the bird world: not without physical beauty, but with the personality of a Very Naughty Child. Fortunately, their presence in Bouldin Creek is counterbalanced by the avian heroes of the neighborhood, the peacocks of Green Pastures restaurant. On my daily bike ride to work, I often see the peacocks helping to stop traffic on South Fifth and Live Oak so that little old ladies and school children may cross in safety. They are a force of good, and can easily kick grackle ass in a fight. They are, however, sorely outnumbered. I could not get a photo of the elusive white peacock, the King of all Bouldin wildlife, a benevolent monarch to be sure. Perhaps he was ushered off into hiding during this week of uncertain times.

I did, however, capture the Great Rooster of Bouldin Creek, pictured top left. A fixture of our neighborhood, a directional aid, even ("When you get to the chicken, turn left").

But even a giant papier mache chicken is not safe from scorn in these uncertain times. A suspected newcomer neighbor to Bouldin Creek tattled on the chicken's owner for conducting business activity on the premises, igniting a brief firefight in our neighborhood's culture war. Even clucky neighbors like those pictured bottom right are no longer safe from the fanatical anti-livestock faction that has recently invaded the neighborhood. Strange days indeed.