by Dennis Dalman
Sometimes Deb Duncan feels as if she’s been born to be a soup-maker.
And it’s no wonder. She’s spent countless hours in her life making soup, soup, soup – 70 varieties of soup to date, and counting.
Duncan is the manager of Liquid Assets in Sartell, where her soups are in constant demand from loyal customers. For 25 years, she’d worked at Hemsing’s Deli in St. Cloud, where she was also known as the soup lady.
Born and raised on a farm near Kimball, Duncan still remembers making her first soup, when she was about 7, under the loving guidance of her mother, Gladys, and grandmother, Inez Duncan. It was chicken-dumpling soup, which to this day remains one of her own favorites and a hit with customers.
“Chicken-dumpling was one of the staple soups in our family,” Duncan said. “In those days, my mother and grandfather put on huge luncheons for occasions, such as when there was a death in someone’s family or during threshing times. Soups were always part of our lives. I was always in the kitchen, helping my mother or grandmother and sometimes both when they were cooking together.”
From mastering those first basic soups, Duncan has constantly expanded her repertoire into a soup menu that now boasts 70 soups. There’s chicken-dumpling soup, of course, and chicken-noodle and tomato-basil and vegetable-beef and wild-rice. There’s a range of cream soups – broccoli, asparagus, potato, celery, mushroom. And there are unusual soups – unusually delicious, that is –Duncan created out of the blue – soups like Philly cream-cheese-steak, sausage-and-pepperoni-pizza and even a cheeseburger.
Duncan thinks out of the box. She likes nothing better than getting an idea and taking it all the way to uniquely delicious souphood. Often, people will give her suggestions, wondering if she could make a soup with this or that of their favorite ingredients. Duncan loves the challenge. She’ll ponder ingredients, juggle them in her mind, start grabbing ingredients in her kitchen, adding a handful of this, a pinch of that, a handful of another. She finally arrives at the point where she can say, “Voila!” There it is, ready for customers’ enjoyment.
A recent example of customer suggestions leading to new soups is when someone went on vacation and tasted a delicious chicken-enchilada soup. She described how the soup tasted as Duncan quizzed her. Then Duncan’s soup-making mind went into high gear, combining such spices as cumin, paprika, chili powder and more. After some tweaking, she topped the soup with tortilla chips. Delicioso!
Pinch of this or that
“I love everything about making soups,” Duncan said. “I especially love cooking soups for my Liquid Assets customers. I’ve gotten to know them and this place has that small-town feel because we all know one another.”
Duncan tries to have five or six kinds of soups available at Liquid Assets at any given time, and she constantly rotates the selections, which are available in cups or bowls. She also sells quarts of her frozen soups to customers who clamor for them. Some buy two or three quarts of their favorites at one time. Duncan has worked out a plan for her customers. If people want a favorite soup, they can put their name and number on a list. Then, when Duncan makes that particular kind of soup, she calls the customers as to when the soup can be picked up.
Some customers throughout the years have asked Duncan if she would be willing to give them a particular soup recipe. Duncan always pauses, and the customers become embarrassed, thinking she’s one of those cooks who jealously guards their “secret” recipes. But Duncan assures them, “No, no, no, that’s not it at all.”
The reason she hestitates, she explains, is because she has no recipe to give. Her soup-making is nearly an instinct, something she does without lists of measured ingredients. Duncan is working on a soup cookbook, trying to translate her soup “instincts” into “measurements” for others. It’s very difficult to make those translations, she noted.
On soup-making days, Duncan gets busy in her Liquid Assets kitchen, using three soup cookers, specially designed to make soups much faster than in ordinary soup pots. Each makes about 2-1/2 gallons of soup.
When Duncan dishes out advice, she gives the same tips she learned from her mother and grandmother:
Always start with the freshest ingredients, ideally with vegetables or herbs fresh from a garden as Duncan’s mother did..
Start with a good soup base. Chickens are not as tasty as the free-range birds used to be so a soup base must be used to lend a deeper chicken flavor. Duncan does not use chicken-bouillon cubes; she uses a chicken stock that comes in a jar and resembles a kind of paste. The stock should include onions, celery and carrots simmered until their flavor infuses the soup stock.
Be careful when adding ingredients, and don’t add too much. Duncan’s mother’s advice was this: “You can always add more if you need it, but you can’t take it out if it’s too much.”
Taste as you cook, then adjust ingredients accordingly.
Don’t add too many things or there can be a clash of flavors. Sometimes less is more.
Sometimes a teaspoon or so of vinegar added to a soup will bring out the soup’s inherent flavors without tasting like vinegar at all.
Love for Duncan’s soups goes far beyond her local customers. Years ago, when Duncan worked at Hemsing’s Deli, a food distributor – the Pueringer Co. of Rice – asked her if the company could sponsor her in a national soup-recipe competition. Duncan dreamed up her own kind of cheese soup and a tomato-dumpling soup. Both were named among the top 40 soups from among 4,000 entries.
“After being in the food industry for 35 years, like I have, a person is always learning something new. And that’s what I love. I love thinking outside the box. Most of all I love creating new soups.”
It won’t be long until Duncan’s 70-soup repertoire grows to 71 soups and 72 soups and . . .
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.