I’m a hardcore used book glutton–you can often find me squinting at the Friends of the Library Last Chance shelves for the 25 cent specials, wondering whether some of the offerings are really worth a quarter or not, and if not (as is often the case), how come the same book (Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons both come to mind here, as do any pseudo-psychology guru selections and Betty Crocker spiralbound works from the 1970s) in slightly better condition is going for two bucks upstairs in the Friends’ main room. But I rarely come away entirely disappointed, because the used book shelves tend to contain quirky and entertaining gems you can no longer find in the thinning selection of bestsellers at your local Borders if it’s still open.
Last spring, I picked up just such a gem at my synagogue’s library used book sale and have been suitably impressed with my bookhound instincts ever since.
The Soup Peddler’s Slow & Difficult Soups by David Ansel (Ten Speed Press, 2005) has sat on my desk for about six months, aging gracefully under a shifting pile of papers, notes, my camera, my blank book cooking diaries, and other detritus, and every once in a while I unbury it again, read a bit at random, thumb through it, and resolve that I really MUST review it here.
Ansel’s book is the story of how he became the Soup Peddler, a Baltimore-born Jew cooking, peddling and, I guess, pedaling homemade soups of all kinds to subscribing customers all over a small town in Texas.
It’s a little hard to describe. The Soup Peddler’s Slow & Difficult Soups is something in the vein of MFK Fisher’s A Long Time Ago in France or Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, but it’s even more in the vein of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon Days, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (only without the murder or most of the voodoo, I think–I haven’t finished Soups yet), Woody Allen’s Radio Days and almost any of the local asides in Kinky Friedman (another slightly more famous/infamous Texas Jew)–pick one of his earlier mysteries, I don’t know, but let’s say the one where he and his sister (both adults) are arguing and each tells the other they “mourn the fact” that the other one’s being an idiot. Only with soup recipes and the sometimes risqué, sometimes heartbreaking tales Ansel’s Soupies recount in their email orders.
Since I’ve only been thumbing through it, not reading straight from beginning to end, I can only give you a taster here:
I hopped on Old Yellow [his bike], coasted down Mary Street straight across the creek. … I found the Follicle Fondler on his front porch stropping his scissors.
“Sir,” he said.
“Yes sir,” I said. “I’m here to take you up on your offer to discuss the gumbo.”
He inflated his great lungs and, setting down his scissors, exhaled through his flaring nostrils. “Let’s go inside,” he said. He cleared off the kitchen table and rummaged in the corner, pulling out a roll of maps. He laid them out on the table.
“I hope you’re prepared to go all the way,” he said.
He drew up his lower lip. I raised my eyebrows hopefully. “Good,” he said. “Where are you going to smoke the ducks?”
“The Smoked Salmon Man has promised his smoker.”
“Does he have access to an ample supply of mesquite?”
“WRONG!!!” he boomed. I steadied myself against the kitchen counter. “Always use hickory.”
“Yes, hickory, got it.”
“So,” he said, narrowing his eyes and softening his voice, “will you be using okra?”
I inhaled and paused, my eyes darting back and forth across the kitchen for a clue. “Yes,” I said confidently, smiling.
“Good,” he said…”We need to talk about the roux. What are your plans for the roux?”
“Well, that’s kind of what I came here to talk about. I…”
“Son, this is not a time for tomfoolery.”
“I wasn’t…I just…”
“If you’re not serious about this, we can just roll up these maps right now and that will be that.”
“No sir. I’m serious. I’m totally serious.”
“Okay. You’re going to make a dark-brown roux. You’re going to stir it without stopping till it’s done. You’re going to take it to the edge of burning. You’re going to sweat. Don’t sweat into the roux. You’re going to get burnt. Don’t cry into the roux. You’re going to wear your arm in a splint the following week. A normal pot of roux lasts about three beers. Let’s see, you’re making (inaudible) gallons (inaudible) carry the five,” he mumbled, counting on his thick fingers. “Your roux should take about thirty beers.”
excerpted from The Soup Peddler’s Slow & Difficult Soups by David Ansel (Ten Speed Press, 2005)
Ansel’s business is still local, but he’s expanded enough to have a staff do some of the onion chopping and bicycle delivery for him. If you’re in his part of Texas, look up The Soup Peddler World Headquarters, which contains more anecdotes as well as ordering information if you want to become a Soupie yourself. If not, look for this book. I entirely wish it were available at Borders, front and center of the cookbook section, but it isn’t.
Meanwhile, I’m off to try Ansel’s version of Shorbat Rumman (yellow split pea soup with mint, spinach, parsley, cilantro, scallions, lime juice and pomegranate syrup), of which he writes:
Neither slow nor difficult…Dazzle even your most Republican friends with this soup, and when they ask, “What’s that taste?” just say casually, “Oh, that’s pomegranate syrup. We like to keep some around the house just in case we’re having Iraqi food for dinner, don’t you?”