July 13, 2023
As a proprietress of a perpetual stew, I get questions. Curious stew-eaters ask me "where did you get this idea?" (Wikipedia) and "aren't you the Depths of Wikipedia girl?" (yes) and "what's the deal with perpetual stew anyway?"
Here's my attempt to put the answer on paper. I first learned about the "perpetual stew" concept back in the throes of quarantine when community events, let alone communal pots of stew, seemed like utopian fantasies. I thought to myself, "Wow, I want to do that," which is also how I felt about preposterous-yet-possible Wikipedia articles like dishwasher salmon and extreme ironing and bog snorkelling and squirrel fishing. Alas, I did not do any of those things. Instead I spent my time on unrelated pursuits such as graduating from college.
In June 2023, when my best friend of a decade moved into my building, everything felt possible. Her name is Hajin Yoo and she's the funniest person I've ever met. We're former high school student congress members who haven't grown out of our gung-ho DIY enthusiasm (in other words, we are annoying). We were chomping at the bit to commit to any bit, and perpetual stew seemed perfect. Sure, stew is more of an autumn thing (personally, I don't believe in the concept of "stew season," but that's beside the point), and sure, I'd have a few fat electric bills. But both of us kept thinking "why not?" When Hajin informed me that hot stew in summer is a thing in Korea, I had heard enough. I bought the domain "perpetualstew.club" for $13 and ordered a Crockpot and declared it the first day of the rest of my life.
More about me later! Let's talk stew.
The idea of perpetual stew is not new. I cannot stress this enough. I am not doing anything novel. Perpetual stew is not a TikTok thing, as this article in delish dot com seems to imply, nor is it a trend at large. There's one in Bangkok that's been simmering for 49 years and another in Tokyo that started in 1945. Perpetual stew is the subject of the classic kid's book "Stone Soup" and the video game "Stardew Valley," not to mention a plot point in a George R. R. Martin book (Arya Stark eats perpetual stew with pigeon meat).
Perpetual stew is not new to New York City, either. As I sifted through newspaper archives today, I stumbled upon a bizarre 1981 New York Times article in which a writer described stew, a decidedly unsexy dish, with a stomach-churning pedo vibe that seems straight out of Lolita. He called his personal broth “older than Brooke Shields, better-seasoned than Mariel Hemingway" and described it as "child, wife and mistress to me for 21 years." He goes on: "I nurtured it through its turbulent teens, cared for it, loved it. Now at its coming-of-age I bestow 21 kisses and one to grow on.” You can’t convince me this man didn’t fuck his stew! Three decades later, Manhattan chef David Santos kept a broth cooking for eight months and, in case you were wondering, never described it as "child, wife and mistress." Not even once!
I catch mentions of perpetual stews far and wide. Quips like "My paternal Portuguese great-grandfather did this!" and "my brother and I did this in 1979" and "this is how my family cooks mole in Mexico!" fill comment sections. These claims are impossible to verify but I like to imagine they're true.
Humans have been traipsing around for a hundred thousand years eating food and making fires, and I can't even comprehend how many stone age concoctions I'll never get to taste. It's enough to make a grown man cry! Think about all the fabled longrunning stews — simmering goulashes in Hungarian farmland, medieval broths slurped up by starving Saxons, soups nurtured by Japanese grandmas — that have been lost to time.
Forget the whole "a Cheeto would kill a pilgrim" thing and consider the ancient broths so unique and complex they'd change your life! The details of these long-dead stews, if they even existed, evade our collective grasp. Atlas Obscura once published a long article about perpetual broth history. I rejoiced. "Finally, some answers about stew history!" I thought. But the article was promptly redacted after an editor realized that multiple interviews were total bunk, fabricated by the writer.
It's just hard to find records of perpetual stews. Food histories rarely focus on the grub of the masses, opting instead to cover the banquets and feasts for which firsthand accounts remain. The aforementioned 1981 New York Times article talks about a French stew that survived from the 1400s century until the 1940s, where it became a casualty of some big thing called World War II. But, call me crazy, I really don't want to trust the sicko who brings weird pedophilic undertones to the topic of stew. If the 500-year-old stew is covered by another source, I haven't found it online.
Wikipedia's perpetual stew article hedges the statement, calling the five-century pot a story "claimed by one writer" to be true.
Speaking of my favorite website! Perpetual stew has had a page on the online encyclopedia of record since 2004 thanks to an anonymous editor called "Krystine" who appears to be something of a stew fiend. During her brief three-week tenure on Wikipedia, she created articles for perpetual stew and beep, beep (sound) (a topic that is sufficiently different from beep (sound) to warrant its own article). She spruced up the Boiling and Slow cooker articles before she logged off of Wikipedia for good.
The English perpetual stew article alone averages 24,000 views a month, and it graces Reddit's main page a few times a year. Thanks to Krystine's Wikipedia contribution two decades ago, people like me know what perpetual stew is. It's because of Krystine that I get recognized at the grocery store as "stew girl" and that media has declared that 2023 is "hot stew summer" and that I'm staying home from a party to write this big old "about" section right now.
Anyway, the whole perpetual stew thing is quite silly and extremely fun for me and other people seem to like it too. I've gotten surprisingly positive feedback — New Yorkers flock to the cauldron with a fervor I did not anticipate. But I do hear a few concerns, and since I've got your attention, I'll give you some additional info. The last thing I want is for perpetual stew to be problematic or insensitive or bad in literally any way, so holler if you've got any remaining issues!
Internet people seem worried about the flavor. They tweet things like "this is how the next covid starts" and "I'd rather do Tompkins Square Park coke [...] than have Bushwick vegan perpetual stew." And hey, I get it. But as much as I love the stew, I'm not gonna break a decade-long vegetarian streak to appease randos. I'm admittedly more interested in community-building than culinary greatness here and if you want *Adam Driver voice* good soup, my perpetual stew will only satisfy you sometimes. Other times it will taste weird! I take no offense and I consider this a "live and let live" situation, or as I like to say, "stew and let stew."
A similar concern is sanitation. And once again, I understand. This is the city where a man once murdered his roommate and served her remains in the form of a soup in a public park! Anyone wary of park stew is correct. What I can tell you is that the bacteria that causes food-borne illness cannot grow when stew is above 200 degrees. I keep my Crockpot on "high" so that the broth remains at a bubbly boil. Before the public stew events, I get my cauldron and combine the old broth with new broth. I add in newly-cooked veggies and then I haul the whole thing to the park, where I stand next to the pot and oversee the stew additions. Anyway, at the park, the Crockpot with the leftover broth keeps cooking using power from a generator, and then I bring it home and let it simmer on my kitchen counter. None of the stew-eaters have reported getting sick. That said, we're all doing this at our own risk and there's literally no obligation to eat this stuff. Plenty of people prefer to bask in the spectacle rather than consume the stew, and that's totally fine. Stew and let stew!
Since the attendance has grown so much, the majority of the stew I bring to the park is cooked the same day as the event, which brings me to another common qualm: is the stew really perpetual if so much of it changes? This is a classic Stew of Theseus dilemma and would make a good addition to any Philosophy 101 curriculum and that's all I have to say about that.
I've previously been a little cagey when people ask about the future of the stew. "It's perpetual!" I say, as if broth will simmer until the sun's death in 8 billion years, outlasting us all. But I know, deep down, that I cannot keep this going forever. I cannot even keep this going for another month. As much as I love to see the event grow, it has morphed from a casual potluck into a large-scale alimentary operation that I cannot maintain. A few dozen pals ballooned into a mob of hundreds. Hajin and I have tentatively agreed to hold a finale on August 6th.
But do not despair, my broth-ers in stew. The longer I serve as a stew-ard, the more I realize that the stew in the pot isn't the stew that matters. What are we if not perpetual stews, hot sacks of organs contained by layers of flimsy flesh? The real stew is inside you. We are, and I cannot stress this enough, the daughters of the stews they did not burn. We emerged from primordial soup and our soulless bodies will someday decompose into the brothy earth, our atoms rearranging into dirt and growing into potatoes and carrots and celery. It's stew all the way down and everything is stew and nothing is not stew and the stew never dies. Stew on, my stew-dents!