It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s ... the Soup Peddler!
One dull workday, David Ansel let a songbird, perched just outside his office window, talk him into quitting his soul-sucking job as a computer engineer. After a few months of casting about for a source of income, Ansel took stock of his assets — $60, a bike, and two soup recipes — and decided to start a soup-delivery business: Each week he would make a soup and cart it around town to subscribers, called soupies, on a bike he called “Old Yellow.”
“The first week I made a veggie gumbo, it probably sucked — I didn’t know how to make a roux,” Ansel says. “But people were rooting for me: Go, go, Soup man! It’s not very good, but we believe in you. Now we are a real company, so we have to do real company stuff, like satisfy the customers.”
But before the Soup Peddler became a real company, there were many long, solitary hauls on Old Yellow, and some of those adventures are captured in Ansel’s book, The Soup Peddler’s Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes & Reveries.
Cleverly illustrated and written in a style that resembles, after a scrappy Austin fashion, the character work of Garrison Keillor, the whimsy of Mr. Rogers, and the memoirs of Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, the Soup Peddler has a goofy narrative arc — someone has stolen the soup peddler’s lucky ladle, undermining his business and distracting him from the real question, to peddle or not to peddle. The book’s real charm is in Ansel’s dialogue and descriptions, sometimes too clever to be true, but nonetheless compelling us to join his community of larger-than-life, funky people.
Ansel says his characters, such as the broccoli-eating cat and the Ice Cream Man, the Soup Peddler’s summertime competitor and nemesis, are based on real people. “One day I was delivering soup and this guy I know from the neighborhood swerved in front of me,” explains Ansel. “He popped out of his car and said aggressively, ‘You selling soup on my turf?’ I put him in the Ice Cream Man mold and invented the turf wars between us.”
In the beginning, the soupies ate whatever Ansel made, but now they can choose from several options each week. “It’s kind of upsetting, because I make a point of traveling around the world looking for the most bizarre soups,” he says, “and then it comes down to broccoli-cheese.” Yet he admits his favorite soup is chicken. “A well-cooked chicken stock with some noodles or matzo balls — that’s the richest experience,” he adds, waxing on a bit about how he makes the stock without a mirepoix, using only the most gelatinous parts of the bird and saving the fat for confit.
The Soup Peddler’s
Slow & Difficult Soups
By David Ansel
Ten Speed Press
181 pages, $16.95
Along with honing his cooking chops (he can make roux now), Ansel has grown the business: 10 employees, a full-time kitchen, and, but for two routes he still rides, the soup is delivered in bright orange trucks bearing the Soup Peddler’s logo. And he has added pasta sauces, salads, and other dishes to the menu.
While most customers have been happy to see the business succeed, others have gone the way of Old Yellow. “We did all the changes at the same time, so we took a lot of heat,” he says. “I get pissed about self-righteous people who say, I’m not ordering from you because you don’t deliver by bike. They weren’t the ones that were sweating, grunting, and sucking truck exhaust at the curbside. To them I was a hero, but to me I was a martyr.”
Yet, Ansel takes their criticism to heart, pondering at the end of the book the age-old question that surely must haunt all entrepreneurs. “Having someone bicycle up to your house and drop off a homemade meal makes you feel as though you live in a village ... there’s something very warming about that,” he writes. “As we outgrow bicycle delivery, are there other ways to retain the feeling?” •
By Susan Pagani