This past Saturday was the second annual Schenectady Soup Stroll. Twenty Five restaurants and bars sold 3 oz samples of soup from noon to five, for one dollar each. My wife and I partook in the soup festivities last year, and it was a lot of fun. It's a blast walking around downtown sipping and slurping soup and imbibing in a drink or two. We got full and ran out of gas after only six samples, (though I probably could've eaten one or two more).
Yelp was a sponsor of the event, and Daniel B., Albany's local Yelp representative, was tasked to field a judging team of himself and two others, and when he sent out an announcement requesting volunteers, I jumped at the chance to be a judge. This is going to be a hoot, I thought.
Then after I committed to doing it, I had a change of mind. Why would I want to force myself to eat 25 portions of soup? That's a lot of soup to eat in the span of a few hours. I got sick just thinking about it. But I didn't back out, and I'm still beside myself that I was able to eat all twenty five soups, chowders, and bisques. The walking helped. We hoofed it from restaurant to restaurant, and it took nearly four and a half hours to complete the task.
Here's another problem. Food tastes better when you're hungry. We all know this, and my fear was that as the afternoon wore on, I'd get fatigued and not be able to accurately judge the food. Thankfully that didn't happen, and as the end of the tasting drew near, I was very full, but I still enjoyed the soup. I enjoyed the good ones anyway.
And there were indeed some good ones and surprisingly, some awful ones. But instead of getting into the individual soups, I'm going to give you a high-level view of my thoughts on the commonalities I noticed. When you eat 25 soups back to back, some trends and themes emerge.
I didn't keep count, but close to half the soups had corn in them. Initially, I didn't have a problem with it, but as the day wore on (and in retrospect), it became obvious the corn was used as a filler, and it didn't enhance the soups. It's winter, which means all the corn is obviously frozen, or from a can. It added little flavor, and the texture detracted from the overall enjoyment of the soup.
Potatoes were another popular addition, and they too became tedious to eat. There were some good and appropriate uses of potatoes, but overall they didn't improve the soups. It would have been nice to see sweet potato (not one of the 25 soups had sweet potato in them) or other starchy veggies such as parsnip—yet another vegetable that was MIA.
If I had a dollar for every piece of cubed chicken breast I ate at this event, I'd be a wealthy man. Of all the soups that had chicken in them, and there were many, only two contained dark meat. I hate to sound like a broken record, but the chicken breast added no flavor, often was not tender, and in the end, didn't improve the soup, but instead made it worse.
Cream Based Soups
We ate a lot of cream based soups. When cream based soups are done right, they're wonderful, and when done wrong, they're a chore to eat. I'm am not a fan of overly thick, gloppy cream soups. I prefer them thinner, more like the consistency of actual cream. Most of the cream based soups were on the thicker side.
Only one soup had beef in it, and it wasn't in the soup itself, it was added as a topping. Most everyone enjoys beef, and the lack of it is curious. Either it's simply not in favor with chefs, or it's too expensive for an event such as this.
If my memory serves me correctly, four soups used beer as an essential or main ingredient, and all four of them were terrible. Two of them were noticeably bitter from the beer. There's an important lesson to be learned, and that is, cooking with beer is hard to do well.
Lack of creativity
Others may disagree, but I felt there was a conspicuous lack of creativity in the vast majority of the soups. Taking something like a Reuben sandwich, and transforming it into a soup as one restaurant did, doesn't count in my book, it's obvious, and not all that difficult to do. I'd pick just one entrant as truly creative, and that was Aperitivo's bacon butternut chowder. It was the only squash based soup, it had an incredible complexity and depth of flavor, and most impressive to me; if you closed your eyes, you'd be hard pressed to figure out you were eating squash. It's probably the best squash soup I've ever eaten.
Would I do it again? I'll be present at next year's Soup Stroll for sure, but would I volunteer to be a judge again? I don't know honestly. I learned a lot about soup, and I did enjoy the experience. But it's also a lot of work. Gut busting work. If there were fewer soups to judge, say 15 or so, it'd be a no-brainer for me, I'd do it again. But this event has become very popular (one owner we talked to said he served 2000 cups of soup), and the number of participating restaurants is likely to grow, making the judging even that more arduous a task.
NOTE: Although the post focuses on some niggling complaints, my intention wasn't to cast the restaurants or the chefs (who put in a lot of effort and hard work to make the event happen) in a bad light. Overall, the soups were quite good, and there's no doubt that there is a lot of culinary talent in the Electric City.