by Sven Eberlein
For the past three months, my daily walk down the street has been seasoned by a small but quite lovely addition to the neighborhood. Whenever I’d cross the street at Valencia and 21st, a friendly, almost fairy-like voice would ring from around the corner, beckoning me with a cherubic “Hello Sir, would you like to try some soup?”
While fate conspired for me to have just eaten or be on the way to a dinner every time I passed by, there still was such a magnetic pull in that voice, something that made me want to stop and be in the presence of whatever it was that was breaking my routine. In an almost cartoonish rendering of myself, my legs, stoically programmed to take me to my predetermined destination as quickly as possible, kept plowing ahead while my upper body housing the sensory headquarters kept hovering on the corner, lured by the sweet and mysterious offer, expanding my conflicted character like a gigantic imaginary elastic band.
Each time the old faithful legs prevailed, and after a momentary space and time-defying suspension in mid-air to bathe in the possibility of divine soup from a random stranger, the eternally curious and sensuous noggin snapped out of its state of wonderment, hurriedly catching up with the duty-bound part of myself.
It wasn’t until last Friday that I finally took the leash off my soul and left my house determined to be interrupted and detoured from wherever I thought I was going, ready to be seduced by whatever culinary fragrances any street elves might be wafting down the sidewalk. My one and only ode to preparedness consisted of a glass jar and a spoon, for as much as I believe in elfin magic I did not expect there to be any dish-washing to be taking place on the corner. I’m a sucker for the Reduce part of the 3 R’s.
I strolled down Valencia Street in giddy anticipation. When I got to the corner of 21st and looked up to where I had come to expect the joyous soup calls I was greeted by an empty sidewalk and a gusty wind blowing in my face. Was the magic soup only meant to happen when you’re not thinking about it? Did I jinx it by making an “appointment?”
Momentum carrying me forward I kept walking along Valencia, and behold, less than half a block in, in the doorway of the Vanilla Saffron Imports store at 980 Valencia, he was just setting up.
“Hello Sir, would you like to try some soup?”
Wow, I had finally arrived. This is the stuff I live for, the moments that make life so damn fabulous. To hell with conventions, here’s a guy who’s cooking soup on the sidewalk!
“Hi, I’m Patrick. I’ve got Mulligatawny with Rice today. Mushrooms, green apples, carrots, celery, curry, water, and a little bit of pepper. It’s like a chicken soup with rice, but no chicken. Mulligatawny is an Indian dish, adopted by the English and Australians, that translates as ‘pepper water.'”
“So you’re a soup specialist?” I ask spontaneously and for the lack of a better question.
“I’ve always made soups, but I’m not a specialist,” Patrick responds patiently. “Soup is extremely difficult to become a specialist at. It’s not just ‘throw some things in a pot and hope something is gonna happen.’ Every time I make a soup I learn something, every single time. Even today, I introduced rice into this new dish.”
You can tell that Patrick is very passionate about his craft, and it’s that passion that makes me want to hang out right here on the sidewalk and dig deeper.
“What’s the best one you’ve made?” I ask.
“It varies, because the soup that you like may not be the soup that this gentleman enjoys. [Turns to gentleman.] Would you like a soup today?”
Gentleman: “I don’t have any money, I’m sorry.”
Patrick: “Would you like a sample?”
Gentleman: “Sure! What kind of soup is it?”
Patrick: “Today is mulligatawny with rice. The soup’s a $5 donation, but if you ever come by and only have a few dollars, that’s fine. Everybody needs to eat and I always try to cook a little extra for people who are strapped for cash. [Hands over the sample.] What’s your name?”
Daniel devours his sample and the look on his face says it all…
Next thing you know, people are stopping to smell the soup, wondering what’s going on. From the distance at first…
but Patrick’s hearty invitation to step into the kitchen is irresistible…
When asked how he got the idea of selling soup in the street, Patrick says he just started doing this as a hobby, as something that he enjoys.
“I’m a local, I live around the corner on Hill Street. One day my roommate says, ‘You know that soup thing, you should give it a go. You always talk about it, you should try it on your next day off.’ So we went to the restaurant supply store, picked out a few things, some things were donated. I started working on the corner of Valencia and 21st three months ago and it was an instant success. I went from, “Are people gonna want soup?” to “People really want soup!”
And the fact that it’s not just delicious soup but delicious soup you didn’t expect to have and you’re enjoying while chatting it up with the chef on the sidewalk puts an extra smile on people’s face that you just don’t see at a restaurant.
When we talk about climate change with its myriad of complex causes it’s easy to get overwhelmed and tune out. A common perception I think is that the scale of the problem is so big and mostly out of our personal reach that the scale of the solution must be equally big and out of reach. There are so many mostly unknown industrial processes between us and the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the shelter we seek or the means by which we travel that to find out where something came from or how many hands it passed through is an exercise in futility. No wonder our only recourse often is to hope that whoever is “in charge” of this maze will make things better, greener, perhaps more organic.
However, while rocket science may help to undo some of the rocket science that has enabled us to extract and burn up millions of years worth of carbon in less than two centuries, it’s going to be less and less useful in navigating us through an era of shrinking fossil fuels. As tempting as the hope in new miracle technology or the next great invention to make the whole industrial apparatus run more efficiently may be, the solution cannot be to add more complexity in the name of streamlining a fundamentally unsustainable way of living together.
There’s a beauty and richness in human to human contact that’s as old as humanity itself. The immediacy and joy of building something from scratch, watching a plant grow or shaking the hand that feeds us is so simple and yet universal, it doesn’t require advanced degrees or expensive machines. So much of our modern lives is predicated on the fear of losing things we didn’t need in the first place when our most memorable and meaningful moments happen during the simple and heartfelt interactions we have with one another. To rediscover and honor these moments I believe is a huge part in laying the foundation upon which we humans can live in balance with the little round ball we walk on.
Or as Patrick would say, wake up and smell the soup!
Full interview with Patrick Bostwick at Mission Local.