Dare I say it?...Merry Christmas!

I, for one, am reluctant to see the holiday season come to its end. Certainly, the cessation of those poor, overworked holiday songs is some consolation. We bear witness to their suffering, their long hours and unpaid overtime, their exquisiteness diminished by ubiquity earlier and earlier each year. Witness Mel Torme, the bearer of "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire"... Irving Berlin and his "White Christmas"... Sammy Cohen's "Let It Snow", Johnny Marks' poor, over-whipped "Rudolph" and his reindeer friends, all spinning in their (incidentally, Jewish) graves as their inventions are chewed through the gears of the commerce machine. It's a testament to the resilience of these songs that as the holiday actually approaches, they gain strength and restore their stamina to carry us through. "Silent Night" is sublime and "What Child Is This?" is utterly resplendent on December 23, whereas they were tinny counterfeits only a few weeks before.

Perhaps it is our state of minds that colour these songs. In those obligatory, scurrying weeks of early and mid-December, it sure doesn't feel like Christmas, no matter the blizzard of paper snowflakes. Then, the songs echo through our mental mountains of checklists and errands. Once those mountains are eroded down to, say, molehills... or once we feel that we've conquered Mt. Christmas, the holiday mood can really settle in, the songs can work their intended magic, we can really sit there in our slippers and sip some nog, and with the aid of a little blessed quietness, ponder poor Mary and Joseph in their desperation and wonder. And finally, this is a Silent Night! I get it!

I walked out onto my porch Christmas morning and heard it: silence. The clatter of the city and the continual whoosh of the roadways was, for once, for one precious day, absent. I ventured out for a stroll down the normally bustling South Congress Avenue, its colorful storefronts pastelled by the early morning light and there was nothing. Not one person, not one car. It felt like the 1950's. I walked along and looked at the little details of the buildings. By one permanently shuttered door of Allen's Boots, there is a landing of hand-laid hexagonal tilework that spells "bakery." Weathered, bare wood joists support the marquee of one of the antique shops. Further on, Nik the goat snoozed in his little hutch. All through the house, not one creature stirred, not even a mouse. I felt for a minute like I had Austin all to myself.

You may have experienced some of the same, you may join me in being sorry to see the season go, for whatever reason. You may feel a little extra reflective, the way you do when you start a new paragraph. Christmas and New Years, no matter your religion, no matter your mood, wrap up a paragraph in your life. Before you take up your pen again, you take a pause, take a breath, use that quietness and set your mind to writing the next one.

Happy Holloween

While we're focusing on the upcoming holiday, I'd like to reflect back on Halloween for just a moment and thank the Hennenhoefer family for setting a new standard for Soupie dedication. I must bestow unto them the title of Soupies of the Century. Please make sure to zoom in on that photo to see the whole family dressed as soup peddler and soup ingredients for Halloween. They have completely made my entire career... I can retire from soup peddling now because I don't think there's a higher honor out there.

Soup Peddler Documentary

This fellow named Cliff Wildman came by and filmed a little piece on our business for a show called Austin Connoisseur. They did a fantastic editing job and it's just a little peek into our lives here at the soup shop.

Also, for those proto-Soupies and folks who are interested in the old days of The Soup Peddler, the original Soup Peddler documentary is now available for purchase here. Local filmmaker Lisa Kaselak filmed this one way back when and there's a new (now, more legal than ever!) score by composer Jake Scarborough. Only fifteen bucks. Fun for the whole family. Just in time for Columbus Day. Oh wait, just in time for National Boss Day.

Soup News From Around The World

Welcome to another edition of Soup News from Around the World! The soup world has been abuzz with tales of tampered soup, soup-related violence, and two new soup world records...

It has certainly been a tough year in West Africa, with three shocking soup-related incidents among the populace... first, we visit Lagos, the most populous city in Africa behind Cairo and one of The Economist's least livable cities in the world, where a <"DEAD LINK">Girl bathed her lover with hot soup... please enjoy the lyrical prose style of that article. We turn towards the Gulf of Guinea and bust a right turn, hardly noticing as we pass through Benin and Togo, and arrive in Ghana to read two more horrifying stories... <"DEAD LINK">Grandmother slashes boy for stealing soup <"DEAD LINK">Farmer threatens to kill wife over rat soup.

However, Africa doesn't have a monopoly on soup-related crimes... we turn to England for this entertaining yarn... Diner orders soup - then pulls out a gun... I love the little details in that article. And depending on your legalistic proclivities, this may not even register on the Soup Crime Watch, but here it is... Judge frees dope soup gran.

In the States, though, tampering is the name of the game... even those of you not so attuned to soup news may have heard the following Austin news tidbit: Austin woman accused of poisoning soup . Sad, sad, sad. And here is Chapter MCMLXXIII of a classic American story, some loser trying to take Campbell's for the proverbial ride... Soupcon of rubber leads to food suit... I should write them and key them in on the countless other incidents, like <"DEAD LINK">Man Indicted in Soup Poisoning and Mouse-In-Soup Scam Gets Man a Year in Jail, where it is repeatedly shown that soup crimes do not pay.

Let's take a turn for the positive, shall we? Soupmaker aspirations realized earlier this year when Miljan Stojanic set the world record for largest soup, ringing in at 10,000 liters... Serb cooks most soup. But of course as quickly as the thrill of victory is upon you, you just gotta know what's coming next... the agony of DOH! Venezuela Claims Big Soup Record... if only nationalistic bravado was always expressed in such peaceful measures. The greatest quote comes from the Food Minister in response to reporter questions about why the pot wasn't completely full: "We didn't add more for security reasons." I say, don't give up Minister Oropeza... if a soup-related Guinness Record attempt is impeded for security reasons, then the terrorists have won.

Other international soup stories regarding rare ingredients... India has a programme to send stray dogs to Korea for soup... Dogs' tail soup threat for strays... On the turtle soup front, two interesting articles came up recently... Texas turtles ending up in China soup pots and in Australia, Talking turtles become soup... This shark fin story actually got a little mainstream press, when Yao Ming publicly swore off shark's fin soup. But here's the stupid addendum to the story... his teammate was flagged by animal rights groups a few weeks later... Basketball star berated for shark fin dinner.

Onto some soup health-related articles... this one may be of interest to some Soupies... Tomato soup 'boosts fertility'... I particularly enjoyed this article about the importance of soup in hot climates... Hot soup, spicy food may provide heat relief... Here's one that argues for soup as a key to longevity... Centenarian has never visited a doctor: Soup, milk, beer and loving kindness are Mercedes Salazar's secrets to longevity... and here's one that argues for soup as a key to Tour de France victories... <"Dead Link">Was soup the secret to Lance’s 7 yellow jerseys? . You'll be seeing that soup on our menu next July during Le Tour. And someone needs to get on the horn to RZA, GZA or at least Ghostface Killah... the Shaolin clan has a secret weapon that Wu Tang will need to counteract with even greater and deffer rhymes and beats... Miraculous Shaolin Soul-reviving Soup is Real

We're getting to the end here, thank you for staying tuned... a little PSA about the dangers of the non-Soup-Peddler-sanctioned practice of eating canned soup when combined with the sanctioned practice of recycling... Ravioli, Soup Cans Removed From Cats' Heads. Fascinating little article here, just vaguely soup-related but cool: Scientists Create Tiniest-Ever Alphabet Soup. And the very saddest bit of soup news in recent memory... this one strikes very close to my heart. Do you see what happens? Do you see what happens when you sign on the dotted line? Soup Nazi Goes Down. I've been following this for quite a while. A story of a man who made a deal with suits who spun tales of riches beyond his imagination, who lost his passion, his store, his reputation, and coming soon... his money. A very cautionary tale for this particular Soup Peddler.

Is There Magic In Food?

I've always thought a lot about food and what it means... how it carries messages between cultures and between people. Is there magic in food? How does it affect us so intimately? What do molecules and chemical reactions have to do with things and why does mom's food make you feel better than anything else? Why did people like my soup at first, when I really didn't know what I was doing? Did I imbue it with love? Is love transferable through matter, or is matter simply a placeholder and carrier of intentions? Are there love quarks that spin just so? Can you put them into food and have them received by the eater? Even further down that line of inquiry, perhaps a bit racier... are some foods aphrodisiac, or does the setting, the intention, the care, and the presentation make them so? And is it vital to cook with love? Why do we cook with love? I recently came across this passage from the highly recommended book Heat: "I suspect that cooking with love is an inversion of a different principle: cooking to be loved." Most of us don't really get the chance to witness and know chefs... just like any profession, there are varying motivations... I think of policemen as either pure public servants or those kids in high school who used to hang around wearing their varsity jackets too long after they graduated and finally decided to get a job where they could drive fast. With chefs, there are different types... the kind we have here at least are the kind that are driven by this desire to give and receive love, whether they'd admit it or not. We're generally isolated from chefs... most restaurants you never see them unless you happen to be wandering down the alley out back, hopping across the drainage oozing from the dumpsters. Thus the mystique, thus the Top Chef type shows on TV. There are plenty of livings to be made... being a chef is one of the toughest, so it's interesting to ponder what drives someone in that direction. I wrote two weeks ago about the uneasy mix of artisanship and management that so many restaurants have to balance, and there's a linguistic clue there, I think. Art has been defined by Random House as "the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance". This extraordinary significance is the difference... it's the icing on the cake of our existence. Cooking is a shared perceptual experience for both the cook and the eater. When you cook for your loved one, you are cooking for them, trying to please them, trying to make them love you, then sharing the same joy. For a chef, it's a little more abstract... it's the public, there's commerce involved... it's love for pay, a twist on an older profession. The thing is, they never get to see you eat and enjoy, they're just painting their love all over the world, and it makes them a bit of the altruist. The school teacher never sees the ultimate manifestation of his work, the painter is separated from his works, etc.

I was discussing such matters with Pat Brown here at the shop on the heels of our conversation about this fellow he once met. This guy was a retired doctor who decided to make it his mission to airdrop breadmaking kits across the world to reproduce Essene bread, which is the biblical recipe for the original staff of life. He was looking for a hand-cranked grain mill which could conduct the user's kinetic life force into the grain, a specially- shaped flagon for water which would align its properties just so. The powers of thought and love that went into the making of the bread would be conveyed and healing powers would be harvested by the recipient. The world would be a better place.

I don't really know about all that. It has a beauty to it, the kind of utopic thought that I take pleasure in imagining but ultimately can't wrap my mind around. Another memory popped forward... I used to rent the kitchen to a couple of guys with pure intentions who made energy bars. They wrapped each one in a corn husk and said a prayer over each one. They organized the room's energy with a large resonating bowl. But lately I'm more the pragmatist. I believe the greatest benefit from our food, the greatest flavor enhancer (besides salt) comes from the sense of caring and security that the gesture of loving cooking and sharing brings. I don't think anyone who didn't know of their prayers and their care could really gain from it. And I don't know that the molecules have so much to do with it either. Of course, no amount of love in the world can overcome the battered molecular structure of a burnt roux for example, but you get the picture. You still have to be a decent cook.

Consistency Vs. Creativity

A little peek behind the curtain for you this week... like any business, we have our little internal debates and difficulties. Our business is fraught with its own set of little complexities. In so many ways, the blessings upon this business often reveal the face of a curse. Since we, not unlike many restaurants, sit on the fence which is described by the intersecting line between the spheres of art and commerce (ok, you nitpickers, I know the intersection of two spheres isn't a line, just bear with me), our kitchen is daily torn between two clashing motives: consistency and consistent improvement. Do Soupies want things exactly the same each time, or do they want us to work on improving things? Do we make things the way we think they ought to be, or do we make them the way we think they'll please the most people? What do the answers to these questions say about us as a business, and as artisans?

This week's iteration of the debate was a conversation about last week's gumbo. Those of you who have been following our gumbo over the years have seen it change subtly in different directions. When I personally used to make the gumbo, I would make as dark a roux as I personally had the nerve to do. Sometimes I hit the mark and sometimes missed it. However, the darker the roux, the less body the soup had. Over the next few versions, our chef Justin fixed the issue by making two rouxs... one dark one for flavoring and one lighter one for thickening. This week, Adam aimed for the middle, more like our seafood gumbo roux... he used a different technique for the roux and kept it lighter. It was really good gumbo, and I was proud to serve it... but was it our gumbo? Was it Adam's gumbo? Was it more broadly appealing than a darker roux? Should we take the roux to its limit, put our foot down and say, "this is what we think gumbo is?" But who are we to say what real gumbo is? Is there a real gumbo to the exclusion of others? Is there even an objective reality independent of our observation of the universe?

Sorry about that last one. Kitchen conversations can get a little deep. I decided to read a passage to the culinary staff from Bill Buford's Heat, which is an excellent book detailing his internship at Mario Batali's Babbo Restaurant near NYU. Mario was giving a pep talk to his staff and said, "If someone has a great dish and returns to have it again, and you don't serve it to him in exactly the same way, then you're a ____." You may fill in the blank with your current favorite vilifying profanity. I don't think we'd rate very highly in the eyes of Mario, according to that metric. But that's the never-ending battle between chefs and management. Management is concerned with meeting customer expectations and true chefs are constantly self-motivated to exceed customer expectations. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. Managers don't like to play dice with a customer's experience, so there's the rub. Control systems versus artistic license.

That's our management challenge, and I guess it's not peculiar to our business. We are all personally here because we don't want a life full of control systems. But somehow we need to reach agreement on what's best for the business... after all, it's incredibly annoying when a business becomes more about the employees than the customers. I guess it's a balancing act that we'll have to continue to embrace. It seems a metaphor for parenting as well... it can't be all control systems (Draconian), but it can't be free reign for the kids (chaotic).

Another Back to School Story

In last week's missive, you suffered along with me on a stroll down the memory lane of the various indignities suffered in my childhood schooltime experiences. This week, as a means of exposing the pathetic irony of my complaint, we honor the 50th anniversary of the battle won my our nation's most courageous schoolchildren: The Little Rock Nine.

A lot can happen in fifty years, and a lot can stay the same. If you ask The Jena Six, we haven't really traveled so far. But if we retain focus on the heroic topic of this essay, perhaps we can keep an optimistic eye upon the present and future. On September 4, 1957, nine African-American students were escorted by police and area black and white ministers towards Little Rock's Central High School. Actually, only eight. One girl, Elizabeth Eckford, was not aware of the escort for her first day of school in the white world. She walked to the school herself, in her new black and white dress. She walked with grace towards the school and was unperturbed by the angry mob, since the Arkansas National Guard was there to protect her. Until they raised their bayonets to bar her from entering the school, at the orders of the governor. The mob drew closer and angrier, and Eckford was lucky to escape with her life.

The rest of America saw this brutal footage through the magic of a glowing box that had recently begun tying the world closer together. What might have been a footnote in a remote class struggle was brought to the shocked eyes and ears of an entire country by a young John Chancellor, who himself risked life and limb, along with many other reporters, on the 'race beat'. Eventually Eisenhower, somewhat tardily sent in the 101st Airborne to protect those nine students and escort them to school. It was a slow but finally reasonably effective response to a situation that unfolded with unexpected horror so many miles from Washington. Of course, that year for the Little Rock Nine was a continual horror, one that they suffered as knowing young martyrs for the future of their race. Time takes its time, and some twenty years later schoolchildren, this time in South Africa, would again rise up against iniquity. The Soweto Uprising was led by children, most notably Hector Pieterson, a literal martyr for the cause. I visited Pieterson's memorial when I was in Soweto. It was a moving, powerful place... much like the steps of the unassuming facade of Little Rock's Central High School. An homage to the power of youth, strength, and journalism.

These are the stories that I will tell my children when they groan about another year in Mrs. So-and-so's class. Along with the requisite "five miles uphill both ways in knee-deep snow" tales of my own daily walk to school. Truly, though, aside from the normal ruminations we all have for the Labor Day holiday, this year is a special opportunity to reflect on the school year and the special gift that it is.

Back to School

Here it is, the Ostensible New Year. The new school year heralds a feeling of getting back down to business; whether we are escorting our kids to the bus stop or just fighting a little more morning traffic, we all share a sense, regardless of the thermometer's reading, that summer is over. Even if the seasons, at this station in your life, don't demarcate your responsibilities, you still hold the somatic memory of that feeling when you realize that the freedom is over, that another interminable year of teachers and homework and other degradations great and small await you. We shall throw a more mature light on that sense next week, but for now, let us ruminate on our own memories of this annual affair.

I think I speak for most Soupies when I say that going back to school is fraught with fears of exposure of your various ill-fitting attributes. Left-handed scissors, the cushion of the green rubber handles little consolation for the exhibition of your anomalous wiring. The uneasy, starchy feeling of your new school clothes a perversion of your carefree summer wardrobe. The buzzing alarm and gloomy early morning sky harbingers of a year of rigor. Then, homeroom... the cool kids seem even cooler than last year while you're just the same, and the ones lower in the pecking order seem to be growing up faster and taller than you, you sense yourself slipping in the Division Standings. The teacher just another adult with another agenda, another boring, uncool agenda. And the teachers that want to be youthful and goofy, well they are the most suspect of all. Then the interminable hours that lead you to the lunchroom... where among the communal tables, social strata become visibly, geographically arranged. The long march to the final bell, the realization that you will have to endure this inhumanity for... you count on your fingers and employ your multiplication skills... could it be? You stop in your tracks, your backpack hanging heavily off your slumped shoulders. Your jaw drops, it authentically drops... Another 200 days? That night, a dream of arriving to school in your underwear and wondering how you could be so stupid! How could you forget your clothes?

It is all too much, and now for the parents among you, you escort your kids to their doom with reassuring words of how thankful they should be to live in a land of freedom and education and how they should seize this opportunity with both hands, knowing well the hollow sound of your entreaties. Alas... it is their problem now. You're done with all that.

Justification For Our Napoleonic Menu

Napoleon. The name itself inspires fear and admiration, even the occasional bit of merry-making. The impact he had on the world is staggering... He inspired so many throughout history to market themselves under a single name, like Cher, and later, Madonna. He even inspired the development of canned food (pictured at left)...

As the Napoleonic Wars raged, Napoleon realized something important after observing his army decimated by scurvy and malnutrition, namely that "an army marches on its stomach" and "soup makes the soldier", and that feeding the troops was one of his greatest logistical challenges. He offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a way to keep food from spoiling. The prize winner, a candy maker named Nicolas Appert, opened his first vacuum-packing plant by 1804, the technology of which leaked across the English Channel and helped create the canned food industry.

Soup Peddler Goes To Italy

Thanks for tuning in, folks. Here's where the trip begins. Having been awake for around 36 straight hours, my addled mind struggled to comprehend the grandeur that lay around every corner. I had come to taste some of the great soup traditions of Italy myself. Here I was, in the land that lent its name to italic fonts. Every time you italicize something, you ought to owe the Italian government a little commission. They invented italicization. Here I was in Rome, the Eternal City, from which we get the very word, the very concept of romance. They actually invented romance here. And Roman numerals. Very heady stuff.

The first and most important soup that I sampled was the cappuccino, mistaken by many folks as a beverage. It is actually a very small, handy, caffeinated soup that is cooked by forcing pressurized water through finely ground roasted coffee beans. Italy is a country simply littered with these little soup bars. The cappuccino bar is an amazing sight to see, an exercise in efficiency and cleverness. One of the strangest sensations of being in Italy is the absolute lack of Starbucks signs. In fact, most of us know that Howard Schultz was inspired by the Italian coffee bar to develop the Starbucks "concept", ultimately developing into a decidedly American version of the idea. The Italian coffee bar, according to my observations, measures 1.5 linear feet (sorry, 0.5 metres) per espresso spout on the machine. Everyone drinks their soup at the bar, quickly, and moves on just as quickly. It's like a refueling station... the soups are small and potent, and the whole operation is beautifully choreographed. There is no branding, there is no soundtrack of Norah Jones cooing from flush-mounted speakers, there is no up-sell.

Fortunately, I chose to visit Italy before the dreaded high season of tourism began. This is the line for the Vatican Museum. This is a miniscule percentage of the line for the Vatican Museum. Four hours in the rain, people. Worth it.

Now, not to be a drag, but the the thing is that the trip was really beginning to be depressing. Periods of exaltation alternating with depression. There's probably a name for that, but this was a particular flavor... it was a sense of wonder at all that we, as a civilization, have lost. Or wonder that mankind can really lose things. Like, "Where did we put that knowledge again? I know it was around here somewhere." That Brunelleschi, the architect of the Duomo in Florence, had to cut a hole in the Pantheon's roof (pictured above) 1400 years later to figure out how they built the darn thing. It doesn't take but five minutes in Rome to realize that for all of our advances, we have in some ways suffered a significant devolution over time. Certainly, in terms of architecture, it was easier to achieve grandeur when you didn't have to budget in health benefits or workers comp for legions of slaves or workers, but still. Even if we were still capable of it, it's at least depressing that aesthetics aren't affordable anymore. Discuss. (Note: I probably don't know what I'm talking about, exactly)

This isn't my picture. I stole this off of flickr.com. It's someone else's vacation picture. According to my map, I walked right by this, one of Michelangelo's greatest masterpieces, without noticing. I think I was on the wrong side of the street.

Okay! I was getting sick of all those coffee-flavored soups and needed a change. They really take that seasonal thing seriously over there in Italy... there wasn't a whole lot of soup on the menus, at least in Rome. I finally came across some stracciatelle, which is one of the soups I was most interested in sampling. This was an okay bowl, a slightly sweetened chicken broth with great flavor but the eggs, which were nicely flavored with fresh parsley, seemed to have maybe been cooked separately, almost like scrambled eggs in soup... I felt that they should have been more egg-drop style, that the soup should have been stirred vigorously while the egg was added. After all, the translation of stracciatelle is "rags" or "strings". Also, the parmesan stuck to the spoon, which is something that we soupmakers try not to allow. Probably didn't have the simmer strong enough.

There's a lot of action in this photo. Hams swaying in unison in the breeze, the dessicated boar's head guffawing the laugh of the damned, and the sausage peddler about to leap across the stand of dried meats to throttle a customer. We had done the whole Rome thing and were ready to move onward. This scene took place in Orvieto in the main piazza, in the shadow of the famed...

Orvieto cathedral. The silly folks who spent three hundred years building it didn't even consider the fact that you can't back up enough to fit the whole thing into a single frame in a standard digital camera. Doh! Impressive, yes, but the magic begins when you zoom in...

And in...

And in...

Yep, three hundred years. In American terms, that would be roughly the same time span as from the day Benjamin Franklin was born until today.

Curse the unpredictable Italian bank holiday schedule! No train or airline tickets available to travel from Rome to Venice, so this photo describes the bleary, blurry final hour of the drive in a rented Smart Car (essentially a glorified scooter). We all know about the famed disparity between European and American vacation time allowances... five weeks plus a generous smattering of bank holidays. Six months paid pregnancy leave. Write your Congressperson.

Venice looks exactly like you think it would. It is a massive museum, essentially, and my doubts about it being the world's biggest tourist trap were well-founded. But it is also the world's coolest tourist trap. There's a reason everything's so expensive here, besides the geographical monopoly economic forces. That is, EVERY LAST BIT of stuff in Venice has to be shlepped by boat and then hand cart to its final destination. My favorite thing about Venice is that it is a clear demonstration that you can have a complete, fairly large urban place functioning with exactly zero automobiles. Of course, Venice and most of Italy for that matter is nearly without handicap access but still this demonstration holds true... dense development can function without or with very few cars. Things are an awful lot closer together when you don't have to traverse acres of asphalt.

Tourist picture of the famed Murano glass. These are traditional soup shooter mechanisms, I'm told.

Developed from early Venetian soups, these desserts are some of the finest I sampled in any of the pasticcerie I visited.

Originally intended as a strained grape soup, accidental fermentation created the offshoot foodway known as "wine," which I found to be an excellent accompaniment to many of the foods I tasted.

Just a bit of food porn for you before we move on to Florence...

And more...

And more...

Wham! Florence. The center of Italian art and culture, the clearing house for all the greatest in Tuscan culinary traditions. I would find my soup here, I was sure. The first cooking academy since the times of ancient Rome was created in Florence, and it was called the Compagnia del Paiolo (the Company of the Cauldron). One poet described Florence as a vast pantry, saying, "There were rivers full of soup which ran together into a lake; and there was a sea of stew, in which, plying to and fro, were thousands of boats made of pastry. The shores were of tender fresh butter... nymphs live on top of the high mountain scraping cheese on graters..." (from Waverly Root's The Food of Italy).

You're not allowed to take photos of the David, but you are allowed to steal such illicit tourist photos off the internet. Again, a flurry of thoughts... Will mankind ever create such beauty again? Is it a lost aptitude? Or was Michelangelo endowed with a prophetic connection which will be revisited upon humanity through another artist's hand in due time?

Here is the famed bistecca Fiorentina, in all its glory. This is the essential food of Florence...

It is basically a t-bone steak from the Chianina, one of the oldest, tallest, and heaviest breeds of cattle in existence. Look at the size... it is lean and grows fast, with two-year-olds reaching 2,000 pounds.

Here is Giovanna Biagi, proprietress of the Trattoria Pandemonio, showing off our steak before it was cooked. Giovanna is basically the Maria Corbalan of Florence... if you leave her establishment without receiving a hugs and kisses, surely you have done something wrong. The steak arrived al sangue and literally encrusted with salt. The Tuscan kitchen is perhaps the saltiest on the planet. While so many American gastronomes blather on about how if you use the best, freshest ingredients, you don't need to use as much salt, Tuscans brush such ideas aside as the hogwash that they truly are. They have the best ingredients, and they take them as far as possible with the copious use of salt. The steak was aggressively salted, and my tongue felt like it was being violently raked with salt. It was good.

Here, finally, was the crux of the entire trip to Italy. The ribollita. Tuscan soups are so thick that they are often served on a plate, with a fork. Most are fortified with the prior day's bread. I took a bite and then put down my spoon and sat, wordlessly, for a few minutes. Meredith asked me what was wrong. I shifted the expression on my face, took another bite, and sat for a few more minutes. "I can't do this," I said. "Sure you can, you are The Soup Peddler," she said. It was not only the best ribollita I ate during the entire trip, it was the best ribollita that there could possibly be in existence. It sent me back to the drawing board, so to speak. I got enough information out of Giovanna to figure out how to pull it off. I also discerned that it is, surprisingly, primarily a zucchini soup, at least zucchini provides much of the same subtle nuttiness and velvety texture that it does in our bouktouf soup. I was sincerely humbled. Waverly Root's words came to mind again: "Florentine food is hearty and healthy, subtle in its deliberate eschewing of sophistication, which is perhaps the highest sophistication of all." For all the high-fallutin ingredients that star chefs reach for, it is the humble food, well executed, that touches us the deepest. As the Tuscan saying goes, si stava meglio quando si stava peggio... we were better off when we were worse off.

To salve my bruised ego, we retreated to the home of actual, real life, Austin Soupies living in Florence. Rachel and Logan of the famous Boots in the Oven food blog hosted us for a fantastic meal of gorgonzola soup, asparagus risotto, and homemade limoncello. It was one of the finest evenings of the entire trip.

On to Lucca, where we stayed for the week-long remainder of the trip. Lucca has seriously restricted automobile traffic inside its continuous wall and "moat", so that bicycles rule the roads. You are likely to see a mother with a dog in the basket, a young child in a handlebar-mounted seat, and an older child on the back seat. You are likely to see 80-year-olds biking to and from church. It is goddam civilized.

Lucca is the heart of Italy's olive oil belt, which makes it the producer of some of the best olive oils in the world. I plan a visit back closer to olive harvest (and in better soup season) so I can taste them even fresher. The oils are amazing, almost peppery, and beautiful in color. The above photo is of an olive oil press... once the flesh and pits of olives are masticated by another machine, they are pressed and then all that's left is to separate the water from the oil, which is either done gravitationally or centrifugally. Gravity oil is the slower, better, more expensive variety.

Without a shred of doubt, "lardo" is my favorite food word and also my favorite food discovery of the trip. It generally has no meat at all, it is just a soft pillow of cured, delicious subdermal pork fat. It is divine.

Here's another ribollita. Totally respectable, but after my previous experience, it was a significant come-down. The vegetables were cooked for several hours fewer, and there wasn't nearly the olive oil content of the other one.

Zuppa di verdure. Vegetable soup, basically the basis for ribollita... without the addition of bread.

Tortellini in brodo. Just what it sounds... light and seemingly lightly sweetened chicken broth with tortellinis floating about. People rave about this... I wasn't so taken but it's nice enough.

This is my favorite soup discovery of the trip... Zuppa di farro. It is the regional soup of the Garfagnana area, a wild and mountainous area north of Lucca. It is just a spelt and bean soup, in a broth of pureed and strained beans, the best versions have a well-stated sage and rosemary batutto. Pure peasant fare, just really soothing.

Ah yes, pappa al pomodoro. I definitely went to school on this soup... American chefs and eaters for that matter tend to want to have nice presentation and variety of texture... our first version of pappa al pomodoro, I think, accomplished both. However, it was not really true to form. Pappa al pomodoro is just complete mush... very simple and excellent... bread and tomatoes and a ton of olive oil and that's about all.

And I'm spent! Thanks for tuning in, I'm certainly glad to be back in Austin and hope to share some of the good lessons I learned with the Soupies.

Your pal,

Monk and the Yellow Bike

One day back in the 20th century I found my bike had been stolen from the garage of the clocktower house. I wandered sullenly through the neighborhood, down here in Bouldin Creek, looking for it, of course to no avail. I did find something, though... I found the Yellow Bike Project house just a block from my house. It was a ramshackle affair on Johanna Street right by the creek. Inside the chain link fenced back yard was a bicycle graveyard of sorts, with disembodied bike frames and parts strewn about. A white, leaning clapboard shack housed a little shop and an ancient live oak canopied nearly the entire property. The ground slanted down towards the creek and there was a fire pit with stumps for sitting.

Over the next few nights, I used the shop to build a new bike from the heaps of rusting parts. I got lots of help from a homeless neighborhood denizen named Monk. He had a long, caring face partially hidden by a long braided beard. I wrote about my meeting him in Chapter Two of my book. My last memory of Monk was seeing him loping gleefully through a crowd at a music festival some years ago.

I hadn't seen him in years and figured he had maybe moved on to somewhere else, until Thursday. We shared a bus stop in the rain and I didn't recognize him because he had cut his beard and hair short. "I know Texas is rainy in the spring but Lord," he said, addressing the sky with palms turned up, "Enough already! You can turn off the damn spigot!" I remembered that voice and reintroduced myself. We sat waiting for the #10 and lamented its sparse schedule. "The #10 is slower'n a damn turtle going backwards!" he exclaimed. We had invested enough time at the stop that we knew we couldn't walk over to Congress for the #1, because as soon as we'd leave it was sure to show up. Soon enough it came, and I told him about the book and how I wrote about him. He asked me how I was on funds and unfortunately all I had was my bus fare.

Later in the afternoon on my walk home from work, I was happy to find Monk sitting in front of David's convenience store. Twice in a day! I asked him what I could get for him and he leapt to his feet to guide me to the icy bin of 24 oz Icehouse beers. I needed wine for dinner so Monk helped me make a selection. "Well, let's start with what you're planning on having for dinner," he said. "Barbecue chicken," I said. We operated on the principle that crappy white wine isn't as bad as crappy red wine, thus narrowing our selection. I picked up a bottle of chardonnay and Monk looked first at the price and said, "Of course, you're gonna wanna do your comparison shopping." I was reminded of a section in A. J. Liebling's Between Meals, where he considered the Bohemians of Paris to have sharpened decision-making skills because they couldn't afford both good wine and dinner, so they must carefully select how to budget their funds... cheap wine and dinner or good wine and no dinner (of course just dinner was not an option).

We settled on a single-digit bottle of pinot grigio and went our separate ways. I've enjoyed walking a bit more than biking lately. With biking, you just whizz right by everything. I sometimes walk through the grounds of Green Pastures restaurant on my way home and get to see the peacocks. In the past few weeks, they cut down a bunch of relatively large cedars to give their live oaks a better hold on the ground water. But they left the stumps up to eight feet tall and hired someone to carve peacocks into them. The rain started again as I neared my house. I hoped Monk had caught the #16 because he said he was awful tired of getting wet.

I'm Not Complaining, Mind You...

Does anyone else find time to be speeding by this year? We're certainly gratified that the summer has taken it's sweet old time coming around. I was enjoying what felt like an October breeze on the afternoon of July 6, and it almost made me long for the hot summer wind. I haven't been driven out of desperation to the springs... I haven't developed my usual case of cabin fever... an evening bike ride is still well within the realm of reason, and it makes me feel like something is missing. There is little ammunition for complaint this year, the ties that bind us are loosened, our very identity as suffering Austinites is disintegrating. Luckily, the incessant rain gives us some replacement fodder for conversation, and yet it seems wrong, we feel like Seattilians or some other breed. People still crave and enjoy our soup, which sucks the very essence of my seasonal affective disorder away from me. When normally I would be known to hang my head low in lamentation for these months, I can only brush off friends' habitual commiseration with a "well, no, actually, business is doing just fine." Soup Peddler staff, who expected me to be a shuddering wreck like last summer, seem almost quizzical at my easygoing spirit nowadays. The kitchen isn't nearly the cauldron of hellfire that it rightfully should be this time of year, and it just leaves us all sort of mildly happy, in that sweet, quasi-lobotomized Austin springtime way.

For those of you keeping track, yes, you now find yourself reading my complaints of having no complaints. Welcome to this particular apse in the cathedral of my neuroses. Discuss amongst yourselves. Have a nice day!

For What It's Worth...

This week, I ordered some food from one of Austin's crop of prepared food delivery services so I could feel what it's like to be a Soupie. The little bit of mystery, anticipation, and ultimately the tasting experience. I understand as well as anyone the complexities and challenges inherent in sharing handmade, lovingly-prepared food with a distributed audience. But I wanted to see if I could just get a sense of what it's like to be you... making a leap of faith and trading some hard-earned money for a service.

I was very pleased with several of the items, but there was one that didn't quite do it for me. I just didn't care for it. It seemed very nicely and attentively prepared and packaged. I didn't feel cheated. I didn't feel like it would stop me from supporting them in the future (if I wasn't already swimming in our food). But I just wasn't jazzed about it... the main problem is that I wouldn't really go running to my friends to share the news of this great service. I put the offending article in the fridge so that it could slowly get pushed to the back of the shelf and several weeks from now be dumped down the drain, and I pictured my own Soupies doing the same thing, and it made me sad.

Every week, you make that same leap of faith... you trust that its going to be good. You can't taste it ahead of time. The waiter can't gauge your disappointed expression and ask if everything's okay. Our part is to do the best we can and your part is to let us know how we did. It should be like a conversation, not a monologue. We don't need a blow-by-blow account of your evening's enjoyment and wouldn't burden you with any such unnecessary obligation, but we do want to hear from you if you ever suffer the disappointment that I described above. We understand that 'no news is good news', except when it's not.

What we offer is the closest thing we can to a satisfaction guarantee... since we're not a restaurant, we can't have the chef come out to fall on his or her sword and offer you dessert, but we can credit your account for any such disappointments. And we're glad to do so. You needn't feel embarrassed, just let us know. Easy. I used to be one of those folks who never sends food back, but now I understand that it's important to do that sometimes. The proprietors would much rather know, so they can make an effort to preserve a positive relationship. They honestly don't think any less of you for it, believe me.

So, you're probably wondering, 'Did he let them know about the dish he didn't like?'

Well, no, I didn't. But I hold you to a higher standard than I do myself, in accordance with the time-tested parental maxim, which you are allowed to use up to three times on Father's Day: Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

The Optimist Creed

First, I would like to share an article from this week's New York Times which absolutely blew me away... the fascinating system of homemade meal delivery in Mumbai, India... please take some time to read it here. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Second, at the risk of turning this newsletter into a motivational pamphlet with loopy italic fonts against a shimmering heavenly background, I want to share with you the Optimist Creed, which is a beautiful collection of rather unattainable notions. It is compelling, though, and I think if you or I were able to realize even a single one of these affirmations, we'd be on some sort of right track. So here it is...

Promise Yourself-
To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

There you have it. Not a whole lot to report from Soup Peddler Central Station except that we are sifting through your excellent submissions to the Harvesting The Great Soupie Brain 2000 contest. Remember when appending the number 2000 to something made it sound far off and futuristic? I guess we're on to 3000 now. Thank you as always for your input and continued support.

He's Crazy Too

So last Tuesday this crazy guy showed up at our door... his name is Mark Maund and he's on a 15,000 mile cycling expedition around North America and he just landed in Austin spouting tales of adventures. Somebody told him, "You ought to go see The Soup Peddler. He's crazy too." For some details of his little jaunt, go to northamericacyclingexpedition.com. I think that Austin, necessarily, made a great impression on him since a planned one-night stay has turned into one-week. Good job Austinites for being the sweetest gentlest kindest most welcoming folks in the world. It's been fun to witness Mark's amazement at the culture that we take for granted... and he's seen a lot of this country up close.

I have to say that his visit dovetails with my fresh feeling of culture shock upon returning to Austin from Italy. It's so good to get a chance to feel Austin and its warm embrace anew.

Classroom Compost

See that luscious, vibrant, turgid crop of red chard pictured at left? Do you know why it is so luscious? It's because it's powered by The Soup Peddler. That's right, everything in The Green Classroom garden across from Becker Elementary School in South Austin is powered by compost supercharged by Soup Peddler vegetable trimmings! I used to live just down the street from this wonderful little place and would spend Thursday evenings watering the garden. Now, thanks to Pam Moreno and company, we have our first successful composting program. Every week, their team comes by to pick up big buckets of our trimmings and folds them into their well-organized compost pile. To see a few more pictures of this program, just go here.

Harvesting The Great Soupie Brain 2007

Here it is, Springtime, 2007. The Soup Peddler is a little over five years old. We're doing great. It's a happy little place. Everything's cool. And yet we're always scratching our heads over here about how to go forward. There are a lot of ins and outs, a lot of what have yous. We sit here and think and think and think. One of the things we think about is that there is a massive, throbbing collective brain of the Greater Soupie out there in the ether.

We thought to ourselves, "Why don't we harness the power of that brain?" In the past, I have used Soupie surveys to do just that. But I thought we'd use a different format this time.

As crass as it seems, I offered One Thousand Fresh, Delicious American Dollars for the most brilliant new idea for The Soup Peddler. Here were a few possible examples:

You: "You guys should advertise on TV!"
Me: "No."

You: "You guys should sell Soup Peddler
brand cigarettes!"
Me: "Uh, no."

The Envelope, Please... This was a really difficult contest for us to judge, in part because of the vagueness of the assignment. Also, we had quite honestly already thought of most of the entries in one form or another... and had either acted upon already or discarded out of laziness or complexity. There were certainly some repeated ideas that we came to think of as the concensus ideas, generally in the form of family conveniences, incentive programs, and health-consciousness concerns... It was good to be reminded of these Soupie desires.

But then on the last day of the contest, a submission came in that sort of polarized our thinking. It was a bigger idea than the others, not quite as immediately usable as some... perhaps never usable, maybe a little commie/pinko and yet it was really the only substantive submission that had never previously crossed my mind. Maybe it's because of the attraction that youthful idealism holds for a grizzled entrepreneur like myself. It was an idea I could put in my back pocket for later. It was the submission of Laura Lucinda-McCutchin (pictured right), and in the end, I decided to give her the prize. You may find her winning entry below...


What if SoupPeddler.com evolved into SoupPeddler.COOP?

submitted by Laura Lucinda-McCutchin, with special assistance from Therese Adams, Steven Yarak, and Laura Jordan

Executive Summary

Soup Peddler, the Coop? That’s right: coop, as in cooperative. Why? The cooperative structure combines the best of community vision and solid business sense. Wait, let me explain.

Anymore, the Soup Peddler has become an adventure and a community, no longer one single person. There is David the Souper Peddler, a.k.a. the Soup Peddler Soupreme, and there is the Soup Peddler which is all of us. So I wanted to think of a good idea that would help all of us. All I had to start with, of course, were my own experience, perspective, and concerns.

My biggest concerns are:

  • that you, David, might someday burn out, and
  • that growth of the Soup Peddler enterprise might dilute the community I value.

The cooperative structure offers tremendous benefits that come from the Soup Peddler community you catalyzed into being. With a coop, you would have options for lightening your burden and rededicating yourself to creativity, while entrusting the Soup Peddler adventure to the collective efforts of committed people who would work to ensure its stablity and continuity.

My Concerns

You might someday burn out.

How can I not wonder when your visionary creativity will grow root-bound and need a new pot? Self-starters are not necessarily interested in maintenance, and I worry about your getting bored and disenchanted.

Possible Consequences

  • You would be sad. You might limp along with us, or you might need to leave the Soup Peddler enterprise behind to create a new wonder the world doesn't know it needs. Either way, it could be very hard.
  • The Soup Peddler adventure might stagnate.
  • Soup Peddler employees would be sad. Oh, sure, they’ll figure something out, but who needs that kind of growth experience, in the middle of trying to make a happy living?
  • You would be stressed, worrying about your employees.
  • If you leave us cold, Soupies will be distraught. Consumed with grief, we will be forced to go to the grocery store, where everything is new and improved, not tried and true.
  • If you leave by selling the business, of course you’d conscientiously sell to someone making good noises about our Soup Peddler values, who’d then very likely betray us and turn it into an impersonal, mechanized fast-food chain.

How a Cooperative Structure Addresses these Concerns

With a coop, you’d be less vulnerable to burnout, and you’d have an easier choice if it hits. Whether you stay with the enterprise or move on to a new pot of soup, the Soup Peddler would be in good hands. You can go to Italy, take a year’s sabbatical, spread the Soup Peddler concept far and wide, start up a new amazing project, work in your yard, or all of the above.

If you stay, a coop would support you by letting the us all take responsibility and share your burden, including the hassle of taking flak when people grouse about change. The coop policy process gives give dissenters a voice and a resolution, in advance of change.

If you go elsewhere, you could sail serenely on to your next venture, trusting that a community of responsible people would carry on in your fine tradition.

A cooperative framework would nurture growth while ensuring stability through the steady, healthy gravity of vibrant community. I know, it sounds like a paradox, and it is. That’s life.

The cooperative structure builds on the energy of the community and strengthens it by encouraging and supporting commitment.

Accordingly, the rising success would be anchored around a core of committed people, who would be dedicated to supporting the enterprise by sharing their resources:

  • capital,
  • regular ordering,
  • service,
  • creative thinking (for free, no $1,000 necessary),
  • support in decision-making, and
  • good stewardship, sustaining both the health of the enterprise and the relationships with non-profit agencies in the larger community.
  • Anyone who orders from the Soup Peddler would be invited to join, which just by itself shares a communitarian message to all and sundry. People on the fringe of Soupieness would be drawn in, increasing the solid base for sustained life and growth of the business.

Possible Objections and Considered Responses

David might say: "But *I'm* the Soup Peddler, and *I* make the decisions."

Yes, and how wonderful that has been! Clearly, the world is grateful. Please, please keep it up as long as you enjoy it. If you think you might one day want to move on, this is a flexible structure for transition planning. You would retain efficient and effective and fun control as long as you wanted, while at the same time allowing for a smooth exit.

The Scaredy-Cats might say: "But a soup coop—that's never been done."

Oh, stop. The man invents bicycle-delivery-soup-peddling, and he's going to be scared of something new? I don't think so. Anyway, just look at these kids at Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery [http://www.blackstar.coop/]—that's never been done, and it's not stopping them.

The Chicken $#!+& might say: "But it might fail!" When a coop fails, it’s because the business in which it engaged failed, because they weren’t running things as a business. That’s not the case here. The business is already highly successful, filling an expanding market niche while sustaining steady growth. With Black Star and Wheatsville as examples, a Soup Peddler Coop could address challenges and avoid pitfalls.

David's Employees might say: "Yeah, but we need a paycheck." Daily operations would stay the same in a coop structure. There would be the same cash flow for employees to be paid.

David might say: "What about *my* paycheck—my *profits*?"

Appropriate compensation for the Soup Peddler Supreme would certainly be structured into the bargain. Of course. A cooperative structure offers more security, too, what with shared capital and shared responsibility. Security of personal cash flow means knowing you can go buy more yuccas, salvia, and crushed granite for your yard. That, and don’t forget: you’d get a hefty chunk of change when the coop buys you out.

Resource for Further Consideration and Practical Study

Steven Yarak, President of the burgeoning start-up Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery, has agreed to serve as a resource, if you like. He can share his knowledge of coop principles, the history of coops, and why the successful ones succeed. I think you’d enjoy theorizing with him and crunching numbers.

Did I mention the gazpacho? My, it is good. Oh my gosh, and everything you do, the food and the helping us all in weaving the social fabric. Thanks for all of that.

You are the hand that stirs the alphabet soup of the world. Don’t let’s forget it.

Do let me know if you have any questions, comments, jibes, taunts, or whatnot, for sending you this soupie cooperative manifesto. Thanks for reading it, and thanks again for all you do.



Goodby Kurt Vonnegut

A friend of mine used to mark the days spent in a particularly useless cubicle. Instead of scratching hatchmarks on a prison's cinderblock wall or a desert island castaway's palm tree, he would keep a list. He kept a list of all the famous people that died while he sat in that cubicle. It was not an exercise in morbidity, it was a means of measuring the collective unconscious of the living world. It was a miniscule part of a population study, a sampling technique that would help measure the depth of the "reservoir of the experiences of our species."

If I was keeping such a list, there would be a bold-faced entry this week. I knew the news instantly when I lay in bed listening to Morning Edition and heard a sentence begin with "Kurt Vonnegut." How many blows have you received at the hands of your clock radio in the morning? It seems all the bad news happens overnight, almost makes you want to blame your unlucky radio and trade it in for a new one that gives you good news. And a kick in the stomach the first thing in the morning doesn't make for a useful day. It's like waking from your last chapter of dreaming that wasn't going so good and your mind just never does get organized, that intricate clockwork just sputters with gears unmeshed until well into the afternoon, sometimes the evening. And folks ask you how is your day and your smiles feel fake like a movie set on the front of your head and you don't know exactly why. This is why, I think. It is because there is a ghost in you rustling about. Not a phantasm or spirit necessarily, but at least a trace, a secondary image of another soul. An imprint on your emotional topography. Someone who got inside you somehow.

I met Kurt Vonnegut once. That's the most starstruck I've been, the biggest idol I've ever met, by far. I went to a book signing in Washington, DC, for his wife, photographer Jill Krementz. I carried with me a postcard of one of my favorite photos of hers, a black and white shot of a smiling John Updike holding a manuscript close against him on a blustery day. When everyone lined up to get their books signed, I saw Mr. Vonnegut, quite larger than I expected, wandering about the rows of books. My heart thumping, I walked over and asked him if he would sign the photo, apologizing that it was of Updike. "That's OK," he said, "He's a friend."

A funny thing happens when writers die. The story dies just as quickly in the media. There's no video, there's no audio. There are no tribute concerts, no retrospectives. You can't do a cover of a Vonnegut essay. There will be no Tralfamadorian costume parties, no Bokononian prayer groups. You won't be able to buy anybody's wampeter on eBay, harmoniums will never cluster about your wrists and sooth you, and nothing will change the fact that we live among a pack of foma.

And so it goes.