Throughout the centuries and across cultures, humans have enjoyed the pleasures of perpetual stews, soups, and stocks.
With the onset of cooler weather, I always remember two instances of winters in Ann Arbor. The first is the time, sophomore year, when water bottles froze inside my tiny Isuzu pick-up truck. While I was driving. With the heater on full blast.
The second was the marvelous stroll I took downtown during my first white-out experience. I had the city to myself, exploring the once-busy streets on foot, with nary a soul in sight. Imagine a relaxed, post-apocalyptic winter land, with sounds muffled by plumes of snow but without the zombies. Fittingly, I ended up at the sauna-like Fleetwood Diner.
My palate isn’t particularly attuned to seasonal sensibilities (read: I don’t care if it’s summer, why isn’t osso buco on the menu?). But who doesn’t enjoy the comforting warmth of long-simmered dishes this time of year? I had a bit of self-flagellatory fun researching and deciding whether to tackle the distinction between soup and stew, broth and stock. I chickened out and decided to use the terms interchangeably here.
I romanticize the idea that something has been simmering gently for countless hours, even days. Let’s talk about years. Recipes, culinary techniques, and family china get handed down through the generations, but how often do we hear about food itself becoming an heirloom? I’ve come across rumors that master stocks in China are so prized that they are sometimes given as enviable wedding gifts. My wife and I didn’t make a registry when we got married, but had I known this was an option…
Perpetual stews or hunter pots were fairly common in medieval inns. And here in the U.S., pioneers were encouraged to “Go west, young men—and take your soups.” Many modern restaurants also keep soup stocks around, and a once-ambitious New York City establishment made modest internet waves by creating a Twitter account in 2014 for its perpetual stew. “Stu” lasted only around nine months, which probably speaks more to the unforgiving nature of the Big Apple restaurant industry than the viability of a low-and-super-slow.
I romanticize the idea that something has been simmering gently for countless hours, even days. Let’s talk about years. Recipes, culinary techniques, and family china get handed down through the generations, but how often do we hear about food itself becoming an heirloom?
The globally lauded Mole Madre at Pujol, a restaurant in Mexico City, reached a respectable 7 years old. At an eatery in Bangkok, the same beef soup has stewed for more than 47 years and passed through the vats of three generations. A prestigious private club in Guyana claimed its pepper pot to be 75 years old, and local legend has it that when a fire broke out, saving the pepper pot was of utmost importance. An oden broth in Tokyo has been humbly simmering only since 1945 because its predecessor, started around 1915, was destroyed during World War II.
And now on to the grands-pères of them all. Numerous restaurants in China boast of stocks that are 100-plus years old, dating back to the age of emperors. But we know the French are not to be outdone in the kitchen. In an article from the 1980s, The New York Times references a 300-year- old pot au feu in Normandy and another in southern France that hung around from the 1400s until World War II. I wonder how many culinary masterpieces were razed in that tragic global conflict.
As we strive to corroborate rumors of centuries-old soups, language barriers and the limitations of local libraries—not to mention pandemic travel restrictions— stand ominous and imposing in the pursuit of truth. If only the internet had been around to document these creations and even give them their own social media profiles.
Assuming you aren’t cutting your perpetual-stew teeth with Sherpas at Mount Everest altitudes, the theory is straightforward from a human food safety perspective: no disease-causing or toxin-producing bacteria can survive the temperatures required to maintain a constant simmer. Simmer your prized stock safely to your heart’s content.
But the addition of liquid to replace ladled servings and angel’s share has internet pundits quibbling about the molecular composition of storied soups. The scientific scuffle evokes the same metaphysical, existential cogitations as pondering whether you are still the same person if all the atoms in your body are replaced every five years or so.
I yam what I yam, if you ask me. What interests me more is the luck, the historical context, and the whimsy involved with an enduring soup. We’re not talking about some art treasure or Twinkie that can be hidden in a vault or forgotten in time, only to be rediscovered decades later. We’re talking decades of daily supervision. We’re talking decades of keeping a stove on, through power outages and gas shortages, droughts and floods. We’re talking about weathering societal strife, civil wars, world wars, economic downturns, and natural disasters. We’re talking about decades of not running into or tipping over the pot. If you’re a restaurant, just having enough customers to stay a few years is an enormous feat. To me, the real joyous takeaway here is trying to imagine the epic trip each pot could tell us about.
Is it worth it? Without delving into nutritional science or taste tests, the operating assumption should probably be that more delectable the broth is, the more likely you’ll strive to keep the fires burning. Besides, if you’re trying to make chicken soup for the eternal soul, it might as well be a perpetual stew.
John Wang, ’03, is the founder of Queens Night Market in New York City and the co-author, with wife Storm Garner, of the award- winning cookbook “The World Eats Here” (The Experiment, 2020).