They wore soft toques and came with a range of ingredients: vegetable broth, chillies, bay leaves, potatoes, shallots, radishes, garlic powder, canned beans, carrots and more – all purchased by their enthusiastic guests.
As their pots emptied, they made more stew.
But they weren’t leaders. And it wasn’t really a serious culinary exercise. It was, as the saying goes, a total commitment for the dozens who answered the call to show up with an ingredient at Fermi Playground in Brooklyn on Tuesday night and try the 41 Day Stew.
Annie Rauwerda, 23, started cooking a vegan stew in a slow cooker on June 7 and – with the help of her boyfriend, David Shayne, 27, and close friend, Hajin Yoo, 23 – hasn’t stopped since. It is a perpetual stew; Mrs. Rauwerda and her friends eat most of it, leaving only a small amount of broth and other ingredients in the pot before reconstituting it. They’ve been repeating this cycle for over a month now, sparking online buzz along the way.
At first, the gatherings, or “stew parties”, were small and intimate. Ms Rauwerda invited her friends to the playground in Bushwick, where she lives, to commune over the special stew.
But as the infinite soup became an internet sensation – Ms Rauwerda created a website for the project and promoted it on social media – queues got longer and portions got smaller. With more than 100 people showing up for each of the last two weekly stew nights, the number of pots increased and shot-sized Dixie cups were offered to ensure those who didn’t fancy an entire bowl got at least a taste.
The scene recalled the European folk tale about hungry travelers who drop a large stone into a pot and offer to share their “stone soup” with villagers eager to contribute an ingredient.
“As you can see, there are several pots,” Ms. Rauwerda said, addressing the crowd that had gathered around the silver slow cooker and a black cauldron. “Who were all contaminated by the perpetual stew.
Behind the mostly twenty-something congregation from all over New York City, a handwritten banner draped over a jungle gymnasium proclaimed “STEWWWWWW!”
Endless soup is not a new idea. One is said to have cooked in a Thai restaurant for almost five decades. In August 2014, one chef, David Santos, launched his own perpetual stew which he sold at his now-closed Manhattan restaurant.
And Ms Rauwerda noted on her stew website that a freelance writer claimed in a 1981 New York Times article to have raised a 21-year-old stew, inspired by stories of centuries-old “eternal” soups in Europe.
Such stews can be made safely if kept over high heat, above the “temperature danger zone” where pathogens can begin to grow, according to Martin Bucknavage, a food safety specialist at Pennsylvania State University.
Ms Rauwerda warns that the flavor of the stew is a wildcard, depending on the ingredients offered by the public on any given day. On Tuesday, many who lined up to taste said the stew exceeded their expectations.
“I think it’s rich and flavorful and really filling in an objectively tasty way,” said Gabriel Strauss, 23, who cycled to Bushwick from Manhattan. “I would buy this at a restaurant.”
Maria Martinez, 65, stumbled across the free stew while picking up recyclable cans and bottles from bins at the playground. She had no idea the stew was perpetual and thought it was all a promotional event for a restaurant.
“It was good,” Ms Martinez said in Spanish. “Spicy, with lots of vegetables.”
But with a perpetual stew, it’s not really a matter of taste.
“I think the overwhelming conclusion people have is that it’s less about the stew and more about the gathering,” Ms Rauwerda said. “I’ve certainly made a lot of friends. I’ve seen a lot of people make friends.
She said she first heard of the concept at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and thought it was “a fun idea”.
Mrs. Rauwerda has a gift for the bizarre. She created a popular Instagram account called Depths of Wikipedia, where she highlights Wikipedia entries on obscure topics for 1.2 million followers. Now she spends her days in her Bushwick apartment writing a Wikipedia book – and, of course, tending to the stew.
But even an endless stew must end one day. Ms Rauwerda said she was planning another rally at the park before pulling the plug.
On Twitter and elsewhere, there were grumblings that community stew is the kind of show that could only thrive in a neighborhood like Bushwick, which has become synonymous with gentrification.
“I really want to be sensitive and make sure I’m not actively harming the community,” Ms Rauwerda said. “But when it’s an open event and everyone’s invited, I feel like it seems like a net positive thing.”
Josefina Hernandez, 56, from the Dominican Republic who has lived in Bushwick for 29 years, noticed the commotion on the playground from her third-floor apartment across the street.
Ms Hernandez, who runs a cafe down the street, went to the playground on Tuesday to investigate. As she gazed at a biased crowd of young and white people, she saw evidence of Bushwick’s transformation. But she also saw something else.
“I know it’s for fun, but it’s beyond a soup,” said Ms. Hernandez, who saw strangers bringing ingredients to a communal soup as an example of the power of community collaboration. “The way I see it, it’s like we can change the world – if we want to.”