When Pam Knutson made her professional foray into soupmaking at a London vegetarian restaurant nearly 40 years ago, little did she know it would lead to a life of nurturing slow simmers in gigantic pots.
"I just wanted to work there so badly," she said. "Even though I didn't know anything about cooking."
But the Minneapolis native learned, absorbing knowledge and experience that served her well when she returned to Minnesota after nine years in London. She spent a decade in the kitchen at Cafe Brenda, the landmark vegetarian-friendly restaurant in the Minneapolis Warehouse District, before striking out on her own, opening Birdsong Soups and supplying in-the-know Twin Cities households with freshly prepared vegetarian soups.
Now, after 20 years of unlocking the possibilities of lentils, white beans, chickpeas and more onions than she can possibly count, the self-professed "Soupa Star" is retiring at the end of February.
"This may not look like much, but I'm kind of an empire," she said with a laugh. "Everyone envisions this little pot and a wooden spoon and they think, 'Oh, the soup business, what fun!' But it's serious work. I'm not playing with food."
No, she's dedicated to the arduous task of handcrafting nearly 50 gallons of nutritious, colorful and intensely flavorful soup each week, and distributing it to more than 150 households.
'Gift from the universe'
Birdsong is a subscription service that takes its cues from the Community Supported Agriculture model, where customers pay in advance for future food deliveries. Ironically, at a time when Knutson is shutting down, her subscription format is really taking off, with culinary purveyors of all stripes embracing it during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Birdsong started as a means of fulfilling a landscaping dream. Knutson and her husband, John Bramble, wanted to build a small pond as a part of a front-yard garden ("We joke that it's our bowl of bouillon," she said) outside their 1907 Minneapolis house. After finding the right contractor, the next task was figuring out how to pay for his services.
"That's when I started selling soup to friends and neighbors," she said. "It wasn't my plan to have my own business, or that my thing would be soup. This has been pure luck. I've always said that this is a gift from the universe."
Knutson has kept her business fairly old-school, relying on word of mouth instead of Instagram. Each year, she mails a pamphlet — you know, the kind printed on honest-to-goodness paper — to her customer base, outlining scheduling, dietary details (whether the recipes contain dairy or gluten, if they're considered spicy) and prices. Those who preorder and prepay receive discounts, and customers pick up from a dozen drop-off spots around the Twin Cities.
The menu features a different soup each week, and Knutson has developed a repertoire of 35 recipes, spread out on a late-fall to early-spring calendar: gazpacho in September, gingered squash with apple around Thanksgiving, hearty black bean in February. The most popular? Cream of tomato, and a spiced-up, Thai-style pumpkin-coconut mash-up.
Invariably, Knutson prepares more than she sells, passing off quarts to a homeless encampment near the Midtown Global Market, or sharing with a nurse friend who works at Hennepin County Medical Center.
"It's always good to make extra because soup is just magical food," she said. "It's such a comforting thing to be able to give."
For the past 10 years, Birdsong has operated out of rented space in a Midtown Global Market commercial kitchen. When the lease changed hands, Knutson saw the switch as a sign to call it quits. She was a one-woman act until about five years ago, when Bramble — retired after 34 years as an art educator — started to pitch in and help with prep work.
"I can honestly state that teaching was easy compared to kitchen work," he said. "I will be happy to get my wife back after all these years of long soup-making and delivery days."
And Knutson appreciates the assistance.
"Now we both say, 'How did I ever do this by myself?' " she said. "He's been wonderful, and it's good for him to see what this all entails. I can't fire him, because he might not come back."
Her customers are using various coping mechanisms to deal with their Birdsong withdrawal. Spouses Dave Bucher and Bill Cooper of Minneapolis, Birdsong devotees for five years, are choosing to see the bright side of this end of an era.
"Pam has had a lot of joy with the work she does," Bucher said. "She frequently talks about how she loves to feed people. Sometimes it's about feeding their souls, and sometimes it's about feeding their stomachs."
Their final taste of Birdsong is already in their refrigerator, in the form of quarts of spicy black bean soup, which, in a bit of fortunate timing, ranks as one of their all-time favorites.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm sad that we're not going to have her soups," Bucher said. "But I have a lot of respect for Pam. When people want to do something different, or find they've completed whatever it is they wanted to accomplish, it shows wisdom that they can walk away before it becomes a burden."
Meanwhile, Knutson is looking forward to her next chapter.
"Not many cooks who retire still like to cook, but I'm already feeling refreshed," she said. "I'm watching TV cooking shows, and looking at cookbooks again. I'm excited about making other things."
Soupmaking tips from a pro
When it comes to making vegetable stocks — the all-important foundation of Birdsong Soups — Pam Knutson said that success lies in the details.
"Caramelized onions are everything; they add much-needed umami," she said. "They're my obsession. If I didn't caramelize onions, my soups would be totally different."
She carefully caramelizes garlic, too, and invokes the same low-and-slow method she uses with onions.
"It can't burn," she said. "I start with oil, and then I'll keep adding water — I set a timer for every 15 minutes — until the garlic is a rich brown color. It might cook for up to three hours. It's another way to add layers of flavor."
She also saves and freezes scraps of all kinds, then enlists them as building blocks: the stalky ends of parsley, thyme stems, the green bases of leeks and green onions, garlic skins, ginger peels.
"They all make a good stock better," she said.
Toasting spices is another flavor-enhancing strategy, and Knutson also swears by the Swiss-made Morga brand vegan bouillon powder. But the most critical ingredient is time.
"You can't make soups quickly," she said. "That's why soup is good for this period during COVID, because people have the time to make soup."
Recipe: Polish Pickle and Potato Soup
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: Because she works in large batches (requiring her meticulously prepared vegetable stock) that do not translate outside her commercial kitchen, Birdsong Soups owner Pam Knutson prefers to share this favorite easy-to-prepare recipe from her home kitchen. "My mother was Polish and Czech and although this wasn't her recipe, it might explain why I love it, because it's in my DNA," she said. Serve with chunks of potatoes, carrots and pickles, or purée the soup in a blender in small batches. Serve hot or cold.
• 2 tbsp. butter
• Canola oil
• 2 onions, diced
• 3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
• 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• 4 c. vegetable or chicken stock
• 4 large red or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced into chunks
• 3 c. chopped dill pickles, plus up to 2/3 c. reserved pickle juice, divided
• 1 c. sour cream
• 2 tbsp. flour
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• Freshly chopped dill, to taste
In a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat, melt butter and add a splash of canola oil. Add onions and cook until soft, about 10 to 15 minutes, adding a bit of water if necessary to keep onions from sticking to the pan. Add carrots and garlic and cook until carrots are bright in color, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add stock and potatoes. Increase heat to high, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Add pickles and cook an additional 10 minutes.
In a medium bowl, whisk together sour cream and flour. Add a few tablespoons of broth from the soup to the sour cream mixture and whisk. Add sour cream mixture into soup and stir until soup comes back to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until slightly thickened, about 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and pickle juice to taste. Serve hot or cold, garnished with dill.