After David Ansel followed a girlfriend to Austin, the romance and his career faltered. So he did what anybody would do: He began selling soup door-to-door on his bicycle. Here, the story of his unlikely success.
I looked uncertainly at the seat, which came to the level of my rib cage. "It's been a long time since I've ridden one of these. Like, decades."
"Ah, you'll be fine. It's just like riding a bike."
"Har dee har har."
But hop on I did, because this is how the Soup Peddler, a.k.a. David Ansel, does things. You want to find out what it's like to peddle soup for a living? Climb onto one of David's homemade bicycles and tool around South Austin with him for a few hours. You want to know more about Bouldin Creek, the funky, close-knit neighborhood where the Soup Peddler started out? Let David introduce you to its residents, including not only human denizens, such as Leslie the Caffeine Dealer, proprietor of the Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse, but also Nik the goat and Starr the potbellied pig.
Only a guy who isn't afraid to throw strangers onto too-tall bikes could wind up where David Ansel is today. Three-and-a-half years ago he was a frustrated 28-year-old casting about for an alternative to a numbing office job. Now he's "President and Principal Soup Maker" of the Soup Peddler, a wildly popular weekly soup subscription service with a base of about 2,000 customers, or "Soupies," throughout Austin, more than 700 of whom place orders in any given week. He's also a local celebrity who ritually murders pumpkins with samurai swords at fund-raisers and makes soup while blindfolded in fringe performance-art pieces. And he is the author of The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes and Reveries, a whimsically illustrated new book that tells the unlikely tale of how he got from where he was to where he is.
It took me a little time to manage to climb up onto the towering Frankenstein of a bike David lent me. (He didn't even try to get me onto Old Yellow. That bike, the one he built from spare parts and used to deliver his first batches of soup, was deemed too much bike for me.) Once I was on, we headed off onto the quiet, gently sloping streets of Bouldin Creek. Mercifully, given my iffy sense of balance, we got to the first stop on our tour quickly: Taco Xpress, a tiny South Austin lunch joint. Over scrambled-egg tacos, Ansel philosophized about the appeal of his adopted hometown.
"What's so special about Austin? Is it the people? It's got to be. So how does that happen, so many great people coming here? I think it must be like a feedback system."
A self-described "nice Jewish boy" from Baltimore, David came to Austin in 1998, at the behest of a girlfriend doing graduate work in this laid-back college town. The relationship with "good old what's-her-name," as he now refers to her with a wry smile, didn't last long. For a while he patched together a living out of computer- programming jobs and some yoga instruction. He signed up for massage therapy classes. But soon enough the corporate world became unbearable, and yoga revealed itself as a tenuous branch to hang a livelihood on.
Others, stuck in a strange town with no romantic or financial prospects, might have packed up their bags and moved on. But not David Ansel. He'd fallen in love with his new home, and he intended to stay. Somehow.
"What's so great about Austin is it has this incredible mix of people and cultures. It's a gumbo," David ruminates aloud, returning to his favorite metaphor. "Austin is a stew."
Thinking like this may have led him, in the winter of 2002, to come up with the idea that changed his life: He decided to make some soup.
There was a little more to it than that, but only just a little. He sent out an e-mail to his friends in the neighborhood: "I'll bring you some soup next Sunday for 10 bucks. Plus, I'll bring it to you on my bike." Seventeen people replied yes, and so he whipped up an enormous batch of vegetarian gumbo, and then he delivered it, in buckets that he carried in a cooler strapped to his bike.
What started out as "a real desperation thing" rapidly developed into a full-time endeavor. By the second week, David, who'd never taken a cooking class or worked in a restaurant, had 21 Soupies. By the third week he had 24, and the two enormous pots he'd bought cheap at a used restaurant supply shop were no longer sufficient. Neither was his stove. Neither was his refrigerator. So he made a deal with a local Thai place. He arrived there at midnight, after it had shut down for the night, and began cooking. Shortly before dawn he headed home to sleep while the vats of soup chilled, and then it was time for deliveries. By the end of his first "soup season," which he made last until July—quite a feat in Texas, where 100-degree summer days provide a persuasive curb to soup yens—he had 48 customers and, presumably, very little excess body weight.
And he had a viable business. Built on soup, of all things.
Slow & Difficult Soups chronicles David's second season, after he'd established himself as Bouldin Creek's go-to guy for soup, but before the Soup Peddler transformed from a man into a business. Ansel was making it up as he went along, and his recipes reflected his seat-of-the-pants attitude, as well as his taste for the exotic. One week might see a relatively familiar split pea soup with bits of crispy fried garlic, the next Armenian apricot, the next turkey kreplach, a grandmother-theft that Ansel describes as Jewish wonton soup.
Employees do much of the cooking these days, but David is still the Soup Peddler. When we return to his house after a lengthy tour of the neighborhood, he's eager to start cooking. "Today I thought we'd make a creamy mushroom soup," he announces, pulling out a photocopy of a handwritten recipe with quantities in gallons and pounds. "I've been cooking in bulk for so long now, I've almost forgotten how to make soup on a small scale," he claims, while preparing a béchamel sauce like he was born doing it. Then he shoves a wooden spoon into my hand and orders me to stir while he moves on to the next step. "Hey," he says, squinting at his handwriting, "there aren't any onions in this soup! Soup without onions? I don't think so." He gets to work chopping a big onion—about 10 seconds' worth of adept knife work. He begins to sauté it in a stockpot with mushrooms.
"How thick do you want this béchamel sauce?" I ask.
David shrugs. "It's soup—it doesn't really matter." He grins. "Soup is a very tolerant medium."
The base of the soup is a rich homemade stock. "Nothing brings more joy to a soup maker's heart than a vat of chicken jelly," David says as he retrieves a quivering bowlful from the fridge. He seasons the soup generously with pepper and finishes it off with a healthy slug of sherry.
I taste it and convey my pleasure with a moan.
The Soup Peddler is growing rapidly. Refrigerated trucks are soon to supplement the fleet of delivery bikes, and the buckets that used to be returned every week by the Soupies and reused, like old-fashioned milk bottles, are being given up for disposable plastic. There's even talk of expanding beyond soup. David worries, sometimes, about maintaining authenticity. "It's a very human endeavor. The table is the center of our culture, and I started as the Soup Peddler because I wanted to bring people back here." He pats the tabletop affectionately. "Some of the original Soupies think it's gotten too big, but growth is good, isn't it?"
"I'm the Soup Peddler," he says, almost mournfully. "I make soup. But my real job is to live fully. How can I be the ringleader of the Soupies if I'm not really living?"
As I watch David scribbling earnest notes in the margins of his mushroom soup recipe—a staple of his business but still, always, a work in progress—I decide living fully is not something he needs to worry about.
Julie Powell is the author of a new book entitled Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.