I was contacted by News 8 on the famous fog day two weeks ago because a reporter made the association that since fog is reputedly as thick as pea soup, what better local expert to consult on this meteorological phenomenon than The Soup Peddler? Not my very finest interview, but here it is. Be sure to watch the video for the full serving of folk wisdom.
Though I have been expressly forbidden from owning a deep fat fryer, I get a pass this time of year, and latke duty falls upon my shoulders for whatever Hanukkah needs might arise. Over the past few years, I've gotten a little better at it and learned from a few mistakes... I'm often asked for "my recipe", and I thought I'd share it with you.
I hate to disappoint you, but "my recipe" really isn't any different from any out there. In fact there's no recipe, it's mostly done by guesswork and feel. Potato, onion, egg, salt, pepper, matzoh meal, maybe some baking powder, and that's the whole story. But instead of worrying about the quantities of ingredients, the actual preparation is the most important thing and I'll try to give you the best description. Figure four to six latkes from each medium potato:
Shred potatoes and onions, maybe one onion per two potatoes, either by hand or for larger quantities, a food processor with the shred blade. Don't worry about the potatoes discoloring. Mix them in a strainer with a generous amount of salt. The more salt, the better, basically. Here's the thing: as soon as you salt the potatoes and onions (or any vegetable, really), water will be pulled out and the mix will seem "watered down". For that reason, I place the mix in a strainer and the strainer in the sink. After 30 minutes or so, water will have dripped out of the mix and will make it easier to form latkes. Now, transfer the potato/onion mix to a mixing bowl, add one egg per potato or two, more salt (much of the earlier salt has dripped away), pepper, and matzoh meal or flour. Maybe some baking powder. Make a nice stiff mixture.
Now prepare your station. Heat some oil in a heavy pan, at least a half inch deep. Preheat your oven to 180 or 200 degrees and place a pan inside to hold finished latkes. On your counter, set up a wire rack inside a cookie sheet to drain the latkes after they come out of oil. Do NOT place them onto paper towels, as most recipes suggest, to sop up the oil. That's like an oily wet diaper for latkes, and is no bueno. Bring out the mix and an empty bowl for catching excess water as you squish and form the latkes.
The oil should be almost too hot, smoking, BECAUSE you're about to introduce a lot of cold product into it. Keep the heat high and start forming latkes about two inches across and a half inch thick, squeezing excess water into that empty bowl. Place them in the pan and let them go until they are brown and crispy on one side, then flip them. It shouldn't take too long if your oil is hot enough. Like I said, keep the flame high and be bold.
Use tongs to place the completed latkes on the wire rack and get your next batch into the oil. If you're doing a lot, each batch of latkes will soak up oil and you'll need to replenish it (and bring it back up to temp) to make sure it's deep enough. Once you've got your next batch in the pan, you can move the drained latkes from the rack to the pan in the oven. NEVER cover the pan in the oven, even if you're transporting them to another location, because they will soften and you'll lose all that crispy goodness that you worked so hard to achieve. You can hold them in the oven at a low temp for hours and they'll stay really nice.
Now go take a shower and take your window drapes to the dry cleaners. Everything in your life now smells like latkes. I forgot to tell you... you might consider doing this outside. Serve with sour cream and apple sauce. The reason the latkes should be so salty is precisely because their flavors are balanced with these two condiments.
One need only read the “cassoulet” entry in the Larousse Gastronomique to be forever cast under its spell. It is good bedtime reading, best done on a full stomach and with clean blankets nearby for dabbing the moistened corners of the mouth. Additionally, the bed is a good locale for there’s something slightly deliciously racy about the prose. Something that thickens the blood and expedites the heartbeat.
“…on the surface of the dish a golden crust forms, thick and fat. Break it because this element must be incorporated… put it back in the oven, wait until another crust forms, which must be broken, and this must be done six times. Serve after breaking the crust seven times…”
Further along, you’ll find a description of the slowness of preparation of the dish. This is quite the opposite of the “quick and easy” bent of food culture. I won’t mention any names. It is a 20-hour recipe, not a 20-minute recipe. It is a recipe for people who want to come home after a long day of work and whip up dinner and have it ready for the following day. It is for people whose first thoughts upon awakenment from a night of dreaming are not just of dinner, but of dinner several days hence.
“…a little tavern in the rue Vavin, chez Clemence, who only makes one dish… to be good it must have cooked very slowly for a long time. Clemence’s cassoulet has been cooking for twenty years. She replenishes the pot sometimes with goose, sometimes with pork fat, but it is always the same cassoulet.”
With this subtext, we transport cassoulet to the wilds of Texas, a place whose entries into the world’s culinary playbook lie more within the realm of deep-fried blobs of Coca-Cola syrup than twenty-year-old cassoulets.
A Dallas attorney with 20-10 vision, a shottie polished to a high sheen, and too much free time gifted me a freezer bag of three unfortunate ducks, shorn of their mortal coils and then their feathers and innards somewhere in Southern Louisiana. I puzzled over the best use of the critters for several months until an Austin parkland acquisition dealmaker with a trusty hand-me-down .30-06 and too much access to virgin parkland provided me some smoked sausage made from a whitetail that last frolicked on a crisp December day in Llano County. In a fine bit of lesser-known algebra violating the associative and probably the distributive properties, duck plus sausage equals both gumbo and cassoulet. Of course, gumbo is just a fuzz too easy. It only takes twelve hours to prepare. Cassoulet, now there is a culinary project as manly as the slaying of the fauna from whence it is inspired. Add the complicating factor of a nine-month-old human baby clambering between your feet, racing toward the oven, dodging spattering molten fat, and pulling on the legs of your camera tripod, and you’ve got a quite masculine task ahead of you.
Oh… what is cassoulet? I sincerely apologize for the forgotten Journalism 101 lesson… I violated the tenets of the inverted pyramid of prose composition. Appropriately, cassoulet conforms well to an inverted food pyramid, one where meats and fats are to be eaten in massive quantities and vegetables are nearly nary seen. Cassoulet is Languedoc’s contribution to the Pantheon of French culinary classics, a hearty, peasanty white bean and meats casserole. Castelnaudary claims to be the world capital of the cassoulet. Of course, once the flag is planted, all others are pretenders, responders, apers. Toulouse and Carcassonne collectively slap their civic foreheads and mutter for not having taken advantage of the branding opportunity. They sadly have little else to recommend them as worthy destinations. That’s it. Meat and beans. Gallic shrug. Then why such the fuss? The fuss, my dears, is that every last muon of flavour has been wrenched from these simple ingredients. The fuss is that this is culinary alchemy at its richest. Cast aside your flimsy tools of molecular gastronomy, your favored countertop liquid nitrogen receptacle and essential oil vaporizer… I bring you true conjuration.
Enjoy the enclosed recipe. I reluctantly included numbers and amounts… don’t let those mislead you or muddy your instincts. I hope you’ll take the time to see the associated slideshow at _______, as photographs are reputed to be able to substitute for many words. It would not be a bother if you contacted me with any questions at email@example.com. Please, however, direct criticism and complaint to the proprietors of this establishment.
P.S. I forgot to include tomatoes. For that, I am sorry.
David J. Ansel
The Soup Peddler
Here’s the recipe:
3 wild ducks
1 rope smoked venison sausage
1 or 2 cups duck, chicken, or bacon/pork fat
1 or 2 smoked ham hocks
2 cups cannellini or any decent-sized white bean, soaked overnight
6 fresh bay leaves
12-18 sprigs fresh thyme
Fresh parsley for garnish
1 yellow onion
1 head garlic
Preparation time: 2 days
Butcher ducks. Use a paring or utility knife to cut off duck breasts and legs, leaving skin on. Reserve these for confit. You may desire to soak the ducks in milk for 24 hours to remove gaminess. I tend to think it’s not entirely necessary… the gaminess of my ducks seemed to have mellowed in the long cooking processes of this recipe.
Prepare stock. Break down carcasses if you wish. Add to a 4 or 5 quart pot along with ham hocks, half of bay leaves and thyme, and cover with water. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat, cover. Simmer for 4 hours to overnight. Strain and refrigerate to skim fat. Pull any meats from carcasses or ham hocks and reserve for cassoulet.
Prepare confit. Place a layer of duck meat in a covered oven-safe dish. Add remaining bay leaves and thyme sprigs, smashed garlic cloves, salt and pepper. Cover with remaining duck parts. Pour in room-temperature fat to cover. Cover the pot and place in a 250 degree oven for 4 hours to overnight. This can be refrigerated for a couple of weeks.
Prepare beans. Cover beans with duck/pork stock and simmer until par-cooked. Add two or so teaspoons of salt. Cook until just slightly al dente.
Prepare meats. Over a low-medium heat, saute chopped onion and a few cloves of chopped garlic in fat from the confit for twenty minutes. Add venison sausage and cook through. Pull the confit meat and add it to the sauté, just to heat through.
Assemble and bake cassoulet. Layer the sauté into the bottom of an oven-proof dish. Deglaze the pan with stock and add this to the dish. Cover with cooked beans. Pour in two or three cups of stock. Bake uncovered in a 300 degree oven for two hours, checking to make sure there is still at least a little liquid in the pan.
Serve. Spoon out a helping of meat and beans, garnished with fresh parsley and black pepper.
Austin, TEXAS (Reuters) November 2, 2008 - Local Austin prepared foods delivery company, The Soup Peddler, Inc., is seeking to become a bank holding company, a move that would allow it to gain access to a piece of the government's $700 billion financial rescue plan, according to people familiar with the talks. Attorneys for the beleaguered company say that "The Soup Peddler is too small to fail... without the vital services of this company, residents of the City of Austin would have no viable alternatives for procurement of borscht, bigos, bouktouf, or burgoo." A high-ranking City of Austin official added that insolvency of the threatened company "could lead to shortages of cioppino, cocido, and cock-a-leekie" as well and reiterated COA support of the bailout request. A spokesperson for the developers of the contentious Domain Mall project, Simon Malls, rebutted the notion of a bailout for The Soup Peddler, saying that "such use of public funds to 'spread the wealth' to rescue small businesses is an unfair advantage and smacks of an anti-competitive, anti-capitalistic, anti-American, anti-patriotic, quasi-socialist policy direction." He maintained furthermore that he's "concerned over news reports that The Soup Peddler would use bailout money to purchase other struggling soup firms and strengthen its steely grip on the lucrative Austin soup market."
"This is an outrage," local house-challenged cross-dressing mayoral candidate Leslie Cochran said. "Taxpayer dollars should be helping taxpayers, not going to pad the bottom lines of greedy small businesses and the reputedly silken, gilded linings of the Soup Peddler's pockets." He stressed that the facile goals of more "oversight and transparency" would do little to assuage the concerns of "Joe Forty-Ouncers across the country."
In an exclusive interview with Reuters, The Soup Peddler, Inc. President David Ansel repeatedly pulled out his empty blue jean pockets to indicate that his company was in dire economic straits, reporting that he and his staffed had lately been forced to scavenge the neighborhood's private gardens and chicken coops to make up for cash shortfalls. "In times like these, I can't tell you how much I support Mayor Wynn's waiver on urban livestock codes for South Austin neighborhoods."
These comments may or may not be of any interest to you... feel free to skim past. I had a little moment the other evening when I was walking with my baby around the neighborhood. She's thankfully a small baby, light enough to just carry on walks, though I'm finding that I have to switch arms more frequently these days. So we walk with our faces right next to each other's... I can easily follow her gaze to see where she's looking, and we can stop and look at things together. On our way out the door, I always say to Mia, "Let's go look at stuff." On this particular evening stroll, her head tilted quizzically at a bunch of muhly blowing in the breeze. Breezes are a sweet thing for her, she always smiles when a breeze blows across her face. But her expression was one of curiosity, and I looked at the muhly and wondered what she thought about it... did she know that the breeze was blowing the bush or did she just think it was a bush that wiggled nicely on its own? "Look at the wiggling bush!" I discussed the matter with Soupie Andy McBride and he likened her experience to that of a meditative state, seeing things exactly for what they are, being an impartial witness to events and thoughts. It made me think of the "Fair Witnesses" of "Stranger in a Strange Land"... people who were trained to remember and describe specific images, without making the assumptions that our brains often do. To the question, "What color is that house?" a Fair Witness could only reply, "The side of the house facing us is blue." This episode also made me think back to the musical pole on West Ave between 5th and 6th Streets. It holds a parking sign of some sort but it has a bunch of holes in it like a flute, and when a certain wind blows, it plays a bunch of musical notes. I remembered having that same sense of wonder about the musical pole one night. The Fair Witness in me could only say, "There is music coming from this pole!" I think it's a good practice... keep an eye out for wiggling bushes.
It's been a while... it's been a few months since we've taken a trip down the lamentable avenue of Soup News From Around The World!
First we travel to New Jersey, where a Woodbridge restaurant worker was scalded in a soup fight. An argument over proper preparation for chicken soup. Sad.
South Africa, Eastern Cape province. 14 schoolgirls dined upon dagga soup each morning. Dagga is the South African street term for marijuana.
A sad end for a community's soupmaker in Jamaica... Remains of soup vendor found.
An exceedingly strange photoshop image for an utterly horrible soup story... Russian granny kills grandchildren with poisonous soup.
Unfortunately, this article's text is no longer available, but a Czech research team in Antarctica found and ate a 50-year-old can of soup left by British researchers.
Palm Beach, Florida. Man Finds Rare Pearl in Clam Soup.
Victoria, BC. Soup country. Woman Throws Hot Soup on Convenience Store Worker.
China, big whoops. Chef kills self and customers by adding rat poison to soup.
A followup from a previous story in San Antonio... Man Found Guilty in Manslaughter Charge over Fish Soup.
OK, in order to restore your belief in the goodness of soup, let's turn our attention to some kinder, gentler soup stories...
Hungary holds the World's Largest Soup Fest, with over 2000 kettles bubbling with the region's traditional fish soup.
On the other end of the spectrum, university students in Japan have created the World's Smallest Bowl of Ramen Soup, visible only through a microscope.
Note to self: Write more far-fetched grants... Bristol Scientists Recieve A Million Pounds To Find Out If A Robot Can Safely Stir Soup. Interesting article.
And the winner in the absurdist category for Soup News From Around The World, an article about Soup Contestants Lose Prize Because Their Soup Was Too Fresh. Rules broken included: growing their own herbs, using organic vegetables, and touching the ingredients!
This Soup Peddler business is a source of pride for me in a lot of ways, but one of my favorite aspects is something that may or may not provide much value for anyone but me... the selection of fonts that I use to design the little graphics for our food labels. I am a self-described font nerd, and I know there are at least a few of you out there like me. There may even be much bigger font nerds out there than I. There may be some who look down their noses at my font choices. I know I do the same. I scoff at vegetarian restaurants and their predictable use of Papyrus font. I lament the misuse of serif fonts on side headings. I love how the Gillman car dealership uses Gill Sans Ultra. A clever little inside joke. Like cooking, I don't have any training in design so my "accomplishments" are driven by a pure DIY spirit.
In the interest of nerdiness, I recently watched the movie (sorry, film) Helvetica. I highly recommend it. A real crack-up. It made me feel like some of my font choices have been perhaps glibly chosen. I thought back to my design of The Soup Peddler logo six years ago... I faintly recalled arriving at the choice of Monotype Corsiva, which has been occasionally pshawed by several professional designers. I still like it though. I was inspired to create a fictionalized early font analysis of the Soup Peddler logo design... you can find it here if you have the time.
We've officially hit the summer doldrums... Soupies away on vacation to cooler climes, others slaking their thirst with juleps and ades instead of more prudent soups... our bank account a mirror of the crude price curve... Fie! Why doth speculators never speculate upon soup?! Sets my head to spinning, spinning, filling with old Coleridge's words:
"Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down,
'Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white.
And some in dreams assured were
Of the Spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow.
And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.
Ah! well-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung."
My albatross, my albatross... this cursed clime! Alas, we push on through the doldrum.
First, read this. It's just another of those too-good-to-be-true sorts of things. I always wondered why bananas were the cheapest thing in the entire food store. I mean, I've had suspicions... one of Men That Read's prior book selections was Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change, and according to it darn near every covert operation in our country's recent history has had to do with keeping someone in business and keeping their product cheap. In many cases, it was what sound by today's standards like relatively innocent commodities: pineapples and bananas. It would have sounded silly to call these little skirmishes "The Banana Wars", so they remain unnamed. Incidentally, there have been other food wars: The Peach Tree War, the Lingonberry War, Honey War, Pig War, and the Danish Wars, though that may have referred to the country and not the breakfast treat. Let's see, where was I? Oh yes. Feeling guilty about bringing another foodie story to your attention... "Dammit," you're thinking, "I can't even eat a *#$&@! banana without thinking of its provenance and the blood-soaked history thereof! Get out of my breakfast, Soup Peddler!" You're right, I am sorry to have brought all this up.
Some years ago, I made the mistake of purchasing an Advantix camera... sort of the 8-track tape of the photography world. It was a revolutionary technology that would transform the experience of photography, er... shortly predating digital cameras. Gone the way of the dodo. My point is that in fear of losing access to all those photos, I dropped them off to be scanned and found some great old stuff. I've been strolling the sidewalks of Memory Lane for several days now. In particular, I found some great (I think) photos of my gastronomic travels from the early days of the Soup Peddler project. If you have a moment and the interest, please visit a quick little photo essay on New York's Fulton Fish Market.
Thanks guys. We won Best Soup in the 2008 Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll. This is the first year that we won the prize outright, and I'm very proud of our kitchen folks for earning this great honor. I mean, this isn't any podunk town anymore and there's a lot of competition out there, so I'm really proud. I wish there was another word for proud because I want to use it a lot in this paragraph and not sound repetitive. Plus we were runner-up for Best Delivery. Behind Austin's Pizza, who are admittedly a quantum leap or two faster than we are. Thirty minutes vs. a week and a half is a lot of ground to make up. Regardless, kudos to our sweet delivery staff for that accomplishment... what they do is quite difficult and they should be very proud.
This drawing scooted across my desk sometime over the past few hours on a torn-out magazine page. My font detection skills lead me to believe it is from The New Yorker, and our forensics department indicates that it is of recent vintage. It's funny because this is actually one of our fantasies... how do we corner the market on soup, this is what we often ponder. Our Chef Mike has postulated that a series of pipelines direct from our kitchen to Soupies' kitchens would be the way to do it... a $10,000 setup fee of course. The pipes wouldn't be full of soup, don't be ridiculous... they'd be like those vacuum tubes at the bank drive-thru or a la Terry Gilliam's 1985 classic Brazil. However the soup tanker truck could be an improvement on the idea. Certainly there would be a few technical details to iron out... excuse me, out which to iron.
Did you know that tucked away inside the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, there is a piece of prose written in 1870 by a woman named Julia Ward Howe, which was one of the early calls for a Mother's Day holiday? It's called the "Mother's Day Proclamation." It brings to mind the greatest idea I've ever heard uttered, by Alice Walker, when speaking at Book People several years ago: "The world should be presided over by a council of twelve grandmothers."
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have breasts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of G-d.
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
Welcome to the first edition of My Favorite Way To Lose A Customer. Let's begin. As usual, feel free to ignore this whole thing. My favorite way to lose a customer is for you to become an empassioned and efficient home cook. Efficiency, it turns out, is very much the key to the whole thing. Shopping, stocking, managing fridge and freezer, prepping, cooking, keeping a shopping list, menu planning, recipe reading, table setting, plating, eating, washing, deep cleaning... efficiency in all these things (except eating, of course) is required to make a home cookery practice thrive. If it takes a special trip to the store, wandering the aisles in search of the eight or so ingredients for shrimp scampi, then a drive back home through rush hour traffic, you're peeling your shrimp before your pasta water is on flame (uncovered) or your saute underway... you've forgotten the white wine so send your lovely out to the store... and a Rachel Ray 20 minute recipe is now turning into an epic narrative longer than Das Boot, you're finally putting that parsley in the fridge that's been wilting next to the stove for two hours and washing the last dish and there's no time left in the evening except for a quick read of an online newspaper. Whereas, let's say you have a well-managed kitchen and shrimp happened to strike your fancy the last time you were at the store... you kept it on ice for three days and it's still fresh and you walk in from work, put on some water for pasta (covered) before you even pause to pour a glass of wine, you know what's in shrimp scampi and it only takes you one trip to the fridge to gather the ingredients... you know what order to prep the ingredients, you have your saute pan on flame before you reach for a knife... you drop your pasta before you deglaze with wine on the way to set the table... your wine is reduced and when your shrimp go in the pan and there's nothing left on your counter but a little pile of fresh parsley and a lemon, everything already returned to the fridge or sent to the trash can or compost pile. You've summoned your lovely as you tong the pasta and dinner hits the table the same time her buns hit the chair. Twenty minutes flat. Meaning you're more likely to do this kind of thing more often... especially when it tastes better than you can get at a restaurant, is more fun, rewarding, cheaper, quicker, and more comfortable. It takes a while to get to this point, and My Favorite Way To Lose A Customer is my way of nudging you along towards this goal, should you happen to have it.
Anyways, Lesson 1... The Shopping List. Brought to you from the same woman who got me to wear a bicycle helmet and floss regularly, the shopping list. Seems simple, but it took me years to realize how important this is for your home's inventory control. Yes, inventory control. We have an inventory checklist at the shop... why not at home? Depending on your level of anality, you could have a pre-printed form organized by grocery store section on a clipboard... ooh, I like this, I may need to upgrade our simple piece of scratch paper cut into quarters and stapled together by my thrifty wife, which already works wonders. The main thing is that this shopping list needs to be posted in plain view in the kitchen with a writing implement ALWAYS next to it. Preferably on the fridge. Every time you take the last of anything or are nearing the end of your supply or get a wild hair (I think I want to braise some short ribs soon!), put it on the list. That's a common refrain around our house, be it in reference to our NetFlix list or shopping list or just a passing desire for world peace or to be loved and understood... "Put it on the list!"
There was a fair amount of response to my missive last week regarding Michael Pollan's In Defense Of Food, and I've been inspired to continue along that path a bit. Food certainly does need defending... this past week Heinz won a well-publicized appeal in England regarding its use of the term "Farmer's Market" in the name of a line of canned soups. If you read the BBC article on the matter, you'll note that the final decision was based on the fact that the use of "farmer's market" on the packaging was so absurd as to not even be misleading. Um. I mean, it's true that there is BS everywhere... my friend Spike reassured me when I was worrying about the inherent lie of keeping the bicycle in our logo when we finally dropped the actual bikes, saying, "Every Italian restaurant in the world called Mama Something's is telling the same white lie... Mama isn't really back there rolling your meatballs even though it makes you feel better to think so." So if the consumer gains a sense of well-being from the charade, who am I to judge? Who is really being harmed by the Heinz lie other than a gaggle of simple farmers? For an excellent inquiry into this conundrum, I (again) heartily recommend reading Bill Buford's Heat. Perhaps some of us think too much, know too much... just let yourself be warmed by the image of Mama rolling your meatballs and leave it at that. Socrates made the (perhaps a little over-the-top) statement that the unexamined life is not worth living. Well here's a case of the overexamined life being... a little tedious. For that matter, this paragraph is getting a little tedious. Let's move onto the next.
I have been quite inspired from my recent reading of Michael Pollan's inspired latest book, In Defense Of Food. Some of you may know his work from the curiously popular Botany Of Desire, then the groundbreaking Omnivore's Dilemma, after which he engaged in a well-publicized debate with Austin's own John Mackey. This book was inspired by the incredible response to his New York Times article entitled "Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants," which was a shining beacon of liberation to eaters everywhere that there is a simple answer... that food does not need to be a quantitative, catalogued, fretted-upon, complicated endeavor in our lives. That the best we really can do is to eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
Pollan needed to amplify that statement, because it is easily derailed in various directions. Mostly he needed to define food, which is a funny thing, funny in a sad way... that food has been hijacked like so many other essential things in our lives (health, media, politics, and religion to name a few) by blind obeisance to base capitalistic principles to the point where it is no longer recognizable, where packaging is just real estate used for brand story inventing, advertising, cross-marketing, truth-bending, and the "food" inside is some twisted de-and-reconstructed substance, where the only word necessary on the packaging should be "apple" or "barley" or something that is plain and simple and easy, that there shouldn't be any numbers or any need for numbers, that there shouldn't be anything to hide or any facts to spin, that "apple" means "apple" and if your culture says an apple a day keeps the doctor away then eat an apple and be done with it, don't tell me the fructose is too much carbs in fact don't even say the word carbs to me. Read this book please to see all the ways that nutritionism has failed us over the decades and accidentally fueled the food manufacturing, food marketing, and pharmaceutical industries to get us to the point where we're afraid to eat an apple but find that there are 43 good reasons to eat an apple breakfast bar. You can't make health claims on something that doesn't have a package.
Now I know our business is nowhere near the golden ideals that Pollan suggests in his book. Maybe we've given you more fat than you needed in this dish or more salt than you needed in this dish or more fat for a culinary purpose but on the whole we sleep well at night knowing that we are doing something simple and good and fair. There are so many shortcuts that can be taken, so many teeny ways to bend the truth... Take for example chicken stock, which in a way is the crux of our whole operation. Many of you likely read the NY Times article on MSG a week or two ago... one of the funny (sad) things buried in the article is that that the hippie-friendly-sounding "autolyzed yeast extract" found in EVERYTHING THAT COMES IN A BOX OR PACKAGE in your favorite high-end-eco-supermarket, notably in the friendly-earthy-looking tetrapaks of chicken broth, is just another glutamate, not substantively different from MSG but has that natural-sounding "yeast" in it. And it's there to trick your tastebuds into LOVING that broth even though there's next to nothing in it. According to Cook's Illustrated, these yeast extracts "boost the flavor of beef [or chicken] by as much as 20-fold." That means that they only have to put one twentieth of the actual stuff in there, or you get one twentieth the amount of nutrient in your body. I've done calculations on our homemade stock vs. what tastes really darn good out of the tetrapak and found that our stock is between 20 and 100 times as strong as what you can buy on the shelf, on the best soup shelf in the best grocery store, but it doesn't have any yeast extract, so it doesn't fool your mouth and brain into thinking your body is actually going to receive nutrients that aren't really there. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Please read this book to learn why we're never going to put numbers on our food, we're never going to claim it does this or does that or has lots of this or is low-that.
It's that time of year again! It's time for The Inundation. Do yourself a favor and take a drive out to the airport and idle through the arrival deck and watch them file in. So much people-watching in one place--the baggage claim at Bergstrom Airport is THE choke point for the legions of SXSW-goers, streaming in like so many lemmings towards their irresistible fate. Well-studied experts in outwardly-expressed ennui, be they industry types who hold all the cards or aspiring rockers just waiting for a seat at the table or turistas here to watch the game. What will be this year's preferred style of sunglasses? Who amongst them will don an ironic t-shirt? Will you understand the depth of that irony? How many times will each walk up and down South Congress Avenue? How many will purchase rolled-up straw punk rock cowboy hats? What percentage of locals will pray for a deluge of biblical proportions to wash their sunny fantasies of Austin away... perchance to dissuade them from relocating here?
It is also time for the much anticipated... Soup Peddler South By Southwest Band Name Revue! Huzzah. Here goes.
As usual, our old friend the Grim Reaper heads up the list in popularity... our number one band name category this year is Death. A mere sampling yields such entries as: Airborne Toxic Event, Annihilation Time, Antietam (sic), Blood on the Wall, Blunt Force Trauma, Care Bears on Fire, Casket Salesmen, another year of Die! Die! Die!, Eat Skull, Let's Go To War, Mr. Lewis and the Funeral 5, Necropolis, My Dad is Dead, The Toxic Avenger, The Fatal Flying Guilloteens (sic), Drop Dead, Gorgeous, and Karaoke Apocalypse. Another great showing for Death this year! Let's hear it for Death!
Backpedaling just a bit in terms of direness, we have the Merely Deeply Gloomy category of band names... this year headed up by such entries as The Cynics, Darker My Love, and Bible of the Devil. For those keeping score, Darker My Love is competing for the forlornly pessimistic fan base of Austin band I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, who recently discovered that they are no longer so morbidly downhearted as they were when they named the band.
I often enjoy, however, the less cliched, perhaps more positive direction of band names. The intellectual bent... we have a fair to middling representation (no, I'm not referring to this year's punny band Fair to Midland) of literary names: Descartes a Kant, Hecuba, Captain Ahab, Hearts of Darknesses, and the more contemporary Nymphets. I'm also quite pleased with the entries in this year's Cute Category: Best Friends Forever, Best Fwends, Blitzen Trapper, Oh No! Oh My!, Peekaboo Theory, Faux Fox, and Hello Seahorse! and we have had a surprising showing in two of the Cute Subcategories: Frightened Rabbit, Gram Rabbit, and Roxy Cottontail, and then Droids Attack, Free the Robots, and Ghenghis Tron.
A solid showing in this year's Food Category: Bowling for Soup, DJ Scotch Egg, Dark Meat, Scrambled Eggs, Ketchup Mania, and Pig Out. Classism made its way into the band names this year, with Middle Class Rut, The High Class Elite, and the return of The Victorian English Gentlemen's Club.
But now it's time for last year's champion, Crapulence, to turn over the virtual award to this year's winner... in Third Place we have Muck And The Mires! Congratulations Muck! In Second Place... we have the inimitable Scissors For Lefty! Up with lefties, thank you Lefty. And this year's 2008 Winner of the Soup Peddler Best SXSW Band Name Contest... let's give it up for... Phil And The Osophers! Woohoo!
I want to share with you a neat little article on one of our recent favorite stews, the Polish national dish called Bigos. The New York Times article is a little light on history, but the photo is quite captivating, especially on an empty stomach.
Another Times article which caught my eye this week was entitled, Racket in the Kitchen, Ruckus in the Crib. The accompanying readers' comments are quite the read as well, fortifying one's sense that sifting through the avalanche (not a great image, I apologize) of parental advice is by definition futile. My cooking experiences thus far w/the babe (Senorita Pepita--Miss Pumpkinseed) have been quite peaceful. The clangour of the kitchen and the inconsistent jostling of being shuttled around the kitchen in my right arm have quite the somniferous effect. One-handed cookery has its challenges but occasional delights--I discovered a new stirring pattern for cornbread batter that prevents the mixing bowl from spinning out of control. Also, her swaddling serves well for many kitchen towel uses. Small fusses can be dealt with by occasional dancing breaks... Senorita Pepita prefers the head jiggling effects of the Charleston. When I need to dig deeper in the bag of tricks, a quick sit-down at the piano for a few bars of Chopin's Raindrop usually suffices. Thus far. Challenges abound, however... high-temperature pan frying can easily speckle the baby's face with burning grease--this is what's known as a "no-no" in the business. Tasting hot liquids while holding the baby also presents its hazards, though again the swaddling comes to the rescue, preventing nasty stains on the cook's clothing. The great challenge of course is timing dinner's presentation... one must prepare everything to a state of near-completion, waiting for the precious window of dining opportunity... plates warmed and ready! Here comes the starch! Tong the wilted greens! Sear the protein! Squeeze the lemon! Dash the parsley! To the table!
I regret the warm breezes, sometimes. Though they gently persuade me towards a loose-limbed springtime, it means another season has come and gone. It means that again this year I didn't wear all my sweaters; in fact every garment in my closet has aged another year and inches closer to being a relationship better measured in decades than years. That may say more about my wardrobe than my age, but I guess we all have a bit of Dorian Gray in us, clues to our own age maturing in parallel with us in some closet or attic. Perhaps I have an unhealthy connection to objects... I feel like in their mute stillness they are the nodes, the bunched fabric of our memories' spacetime. True, simple objects are cues not as explicit as a photograph of a loved place or loved one, not as captivating as an old song or remindful scent, but they carry a fair amount of power.
As do the breezes. No shortage of poetry, some triter than other, credits the winds with the ability to usher in the seasons of our minds and hearts. I guess I'm not speaking of such transformation, just a whiff of temporality passing through. Maybe a flash of time standing still only because it's being observed, like the split second of a spinning wheel appearing still when you flick your eyes in the direction of its rotation. And then you feel the contrast with that quick stillness, the ever-spinning wheel, the immutable marching of time... that's what makes you feel like life's game is played on such a slippery board. You can dig in and skid or you can lean forward and skate and glide, maybe spin. I guess there is only that choice, and we know from Locutus of Borg, resistance is futile.
I was saying, the breezes, yes, the breezes are what bring me to this state of mind... we spend so much time rowing our boats facing backwards towards the wake, watching our ripples and the shoreline recede into a fuzzy reverie. Rarely do we turn to face the coming waters, except for an occasional glance to make sure we don't bash into something embarrassing or dangerous... rarely do we face forward to see the bumps and curves in the road, for we are inured to our inability to see around corners, at least we have learned that lesson. But the breeze reminds us that it has traveled far to finally arrive with its vague message, that there is indeed yet far to travel, that we still might ought pause and turn to take in the view ahead.