The "Soup Mama" brings home cooking right to your door
Camille Murray-Wilson is not a fan of her mother's homemade soup. "If I had to eat that, I would want to puke. I'm sorry," the youngster proclaims. "I don't like the grilled cheese at school, because it comes with soup." Despite her distaste, the 5-year-old gets into her bike trailer every Tuesday and accompanies her mom, Lorraine Murray, on a mission. Because Murray isn't just Camille's "soup mama" — since last September, she's Burlington's.
To Old North End residents, the sight of Murray on her bike, a trailer full of soup wobbling behind her, is nothing new. Rain or shine, she delivers a weekly dose of hot comfort food to about a dozen local clients. With advertisements on the neighborhood-based networking site Frontporchforum.com and her own blog (http://thesoupmama.wordpress.com), Murray is targeting Burlington as the home of her would-be soup empire.
The svelte 26-year-old is not the first person to build a cycle-powered soup-delivery business. Ultra-convenient operations such as hers have sprung up around the country. Murray considers David Ansel, the "Soup Peddler" of Austin, Texas, a mentor. Now the owner of a successful store that bears his on-the-street sobriquet, Ansel has attracted notice from no less prestigious a pub than Food and Wine magazine. "He's done it all," Murray says admiringly. "I email him when I have questions, and it's really good to have that."
An Austin native, Murray heard about Ansel from her mom, who just happens to be the Soup Peddler's bookkeeper — and was convinced her daughter could repeat his success. "She was on me for a couple of years, saying, 'You have to do this; Burlington would be so perfect,'" Murray explains. "And finally I was, like, 'OK, OK, I'll try it.'"
The Soup Mama's process begins on Monday, when she posts the soup of the week on her blog. (Offerings include black bean, soup au pistou and gumbo with chicken and sausage.) On Saturday night at 8, she tallies up the orders, which arrive via email. The following Monday evening, after Murray has finished her other job caring for a toddler, her home transforms for a few hours into a professional kitchen.
On Tuesday, Murray loads Camille into one side of her bike trailer, homemade soup in the other. Camille clutches a flower-adorned knit purse to hold the money her mother collects on doorsteps and back porches as she drops off her quarts. Murray prefers that repeat clients leave their payment in plastic containers, which she'll return, filled to the brim with savory soup, the following week.
One client in the Old North End, Hillary Holmes, praises Murray's business as "local from the ground up." "My partner and I feel that it's important to support local business. And we really love soup," she says. "We get Junior's bread from the market down the street and love having that with it, too."
To serve a clientele that likes to keep it in the neighborhood, Murray buys ingredients from Vermont whenever she can. "Last week I did potato leek soup. I got the potatoes from Chappelle's and the leeks from Lewis Creek in Starksboro," she says. "I have some butternut squash from Digger's Mirth that's waiting to be made [into soup]." The Intervale is an easy trip on a bike, and Murray and Camille often pedal there for other produce, in season.
Buying local, however, is not Murray's only concern. Nutrition is key in her vegetable-rich soups. With parents who own a natural food business, Murray grew up vegetarian before it was hip. Her childhood, filled with tofu dishes and yogurt, influences the food she prepares for her family and her customers. "When I had Camille, it all registered," she muses. "I don't like to peel the potatoes; I'm used to having the skin on."
That doesn't mean her wares are downright ascetic. Murray is quick to add, "I try to make healthy food, but cream is good, too. It makes its way in."
Murray has no formal culinary training, and she says her late-blooming love of cuisine was born from the necessity of cooking for her family. In fact, she reveals, "The only things I cooked were spaghetti and chimichangas," before she met David Wilson, Camille's father, with whom she now lives. Murray teasingly refers to Wilson — a sports writer and occasional NPR pundit — as her "executive taster."
When the Soup Mama kicked off her business, the very first soup she served was curried lentil, a homely and soothing potage. "Lentil soup was my favorite soup as a kid. So I thought it would be perfect to start this whole venture with an adult version of my favorite growing up," Murray says. Though she sells plenty of hot stuff these days — up to a dozen regulars and counting — the first week she had a limited customer base: "Only one person got it."
Murray keeps her kitchen admirably clean for any busy mom, let alone a professional cook. The room is decorated with Camille's artwork and school notices; only the neatly stacked piles of bulk spices and the giant stainless steel stockpot perched on the stove indicate its second, not-so-domestic function.
Before becoming the Soup Mama, Murray had never cooked for a group larger than her family, and she's still working out the kinks. "I'm learning, and I'm still always going to be learning," she explains, crushing cloves of garlic with an intimidating-looking knife. "You don't just cook gallons and gallons of food at home."
As Murray chops and sautés onions, Camille fetches a cloth to help dry her mother's eyes. As she adds other veggies and curry powder to the mix, the room begins to smell of India. While Murray checks on the soup's progress, Camille reads the picture book Olivia aloud. Today she's more interested in dancing and twirling for an audience than in cooking, but Murray says soup making can be a bonding activity. When the concoction is done, it's reminiscent of a good mulligatawny, with a sweet first bite and a subtly spicy undertone that surprises the taster.
Although she got a new car for her last birthday, Murray favors the environmental and health perks of her two-wheeled transportation. She plans to continue delivering by bike unless the weather absolutely forbids it. A few weeks ago, she dropped off her wares during a torrential downpour, an ordeal that yielded some wise advice: "Don't ride a bike in jeans when it's raining out." As it gets too cold for Camille to accompany her, Murray plans to replace her kiddie trailer with a larger one, which will sport a massive cooler.
Murray says her business grows each week. For now, her delivery area is limited to the Old North End and downtown, but she sees expansion in the future: "I'd like to offer lunch delivery for businesses. I'd like to keep it on my bike as much as I can, but eventually move on to the south side [of Burlington]."
But her vision doesn't end there. With the example of the Soup Peddler in mind, Murray envisions herself running a store that would be "a soup shop during fall and winter and true Tex-Mex take-out in the summer. That would be fun!"