Over the long weekend, the chef Natasha Pickowicz posted a slideshow of some very nice-looking soups to Instagram. Some had beans, many featured greens, a couple were noodle-y. What all the soups had in common, and what piqued Grub’s curiosity, was that they had all been made from the same soup base, which Pickowicz had been continuously cooking and feeding with new ingredients. She calls it her “Soup Mother.” As a technique, the idea of a never-ending stew has been around, quite literally, forever (or at least as long as it’s been since someone realized it’s easier to keep a single wood fire going than it is to start a new one each day, or that boiling food was safer than leaving it out before the invention of mechanical refrigeration), and Pickowicz is the first person to say she’s not trying to take any kind of ownership over this idea. But there was still something about her post that struck a chord with her 27,000 followers — Grub Street included. So we called her up to learn a little bit more about her thoughts on soup, during a week when we could all probably stand to have something delicious bubbling away on our stoves.
First, for the people who haven’t seen your post, can you explain this idea quickly? On Instagram, you wrote about “pursuing the idea that one meal can flow into the next,” and creating big batches, in this case of soup, “that evolve over time.” So Tuesday’s soup becomes Wednesday’s and so on.
I think people are reluctant to blur those boundaries and mix everything together, but to me, it just feels more intuitive to have the cooking feel more like a wave with different parts. It also feels like more efficient and easier to me too. I don’t want to chop.
I think that there are certain concepts around a mother, something that I think we’re all super familiar with, whether it’s sourdough starter or a kombucha SCOBY. I think we need to understand the idea of one concentrated thing beginning the next, new thing, even if this is a little different because it’s cooked.
I’m so interested in people’s reactions. You said you got a lot of questions. What were they asking about?
I think a lot of people were just like, Whoa, mind-blown emoji. I’ve never thought about cooking in this way before. I think it speaks so much to how Americans in particular are conditioned to think about meals and cooking and shopping for ourselves. With things like meal delivery services, we are getting exactly the right amount of ingredients for a dinner for two, or the yield is one cup of rice or, you know, five florets of broccoli. I live alone. I can’t be that rigid, so I just use common sense.
For me, I feel like we lose the point of cooking. We’re so stuck in the recipes and what to do and the quantities of everything that you forget that cooking can be this super intuitive, relaxing process that doesn’t have edges around it, but is this ambiguous thing that flows into the next thing.
Every few years, the internet content cycle resurfaces this idea, and then people offer their takes. The Post, predictably, calls it “scary.” Food & Wine once ran a piece called, “Why You Shouldn’t Be Terrified of This Never-ending Stew.”
I think that really extends to a lot of fear Americans have around food safety. We just believe these things blindly, like, Oh, the egg case says the eggs are expired. I’m going to throw them all away.
My mother is an immigrant. Her approach to cooking as a Chinese person is going to look different than somebody who’s raised in a white, American household with different strategies or approaches. I was just at home in San Diego where my parents live and I couldn’t stop laughing at the fact that they don’t refrigerate anything. Again, they’re like in a beautiful, mild climate, good for them, but I was cracking up because they were wrapping up cheeses and leaving them on the counter. Cooked things like rice never get refrigerated. My parents are so healthy and my mom is an insane cook. I was just like, You know what? This is reassuring. You have to just do what feels right to you.
Right. This isn’t an idea that really relates to food safety at all.
I’ve worked in a restaurant, I’ve seen everything that can go wrong. I’ve also seen the ways a dish can stay consistent from day 1 to day 100 is sometimes because there are things like a mother ingredient. Seeing tricks like that, and then bringing them into my apartment — I’m not going to make some fussy little meal, and then have it be over by the time I’m done eating it. I don’t have that time. I want to have something delicious that’s full of deep flavor that is going to instantly boost something seemingly simple. That way, when I’m cooking and I’m ready to eat, all I have to do is pour some broth over some rice and blend some vegetables and it’s done and it tastes complete and it feels nourishing.
I have a tiny apartment and a ridiculously small refrigerator. I’m not going to put a six-quart Dutch oven in there when I can leave it out on my counter because my apartment is not really getting warmer than 65 degrees, anyway. There’s a lot of this nonna-grandma advice, where you’re like, This doesn’t really seem like it’s based in science, but I trust it somehow. If I bring it to a boil, I’ll just keep eating it and it’ll be fine, and if it tastes weird, I’m going to throw it away, and that’s okay.
I saw other comments from people who said they already do this, and one from a person who was bemused by others being weirded out.
I heard a lot of comments from people who are like, Wow, I’ve been doing this my whole life, and I’ve never heard it talked about in this way, or I’ve never thought about it in this way. If you just Google that idea, then you see how that idea has been expressed all over the world. In my mind, I just thought of it as a Chinese thing. But then I was having people from Mexico being like, This is how I cook beans. I’ll cook beans and then I’ll puree a little bit at the end and I’ll introduce that into my braising liquid the next time. Then someone else is like, Oh, this is how my Polish grandmother makes this beef stew, and it just goes on and on and on.
People might do this because of thrift, but you’re talking about it as a more intentional technique.
Yeah, I think so. I think that it improves the flavor of food, too. If I’m going to boil beans and water, it’s not going to taste the same as it would if there’s also a cup of some kind of rich, super-savory, thick liquid that is just, like, the result of onions and carrots and celery being boiled in it for hours. I originally did it because of thrift, but then I keep doing it because I like how it makes my food taste as well.
The practical aspect of this makes me think of An Everlasting Meal.
There are definitely a lot of great books that talk about this approach and this philosophy, like Tamar Adler’s. There are a lot of books about how to upcycle your leftovers and this and that. But I think there is a stigma about how we’re looking at leftovers and trying to make them seem appealing again, and I don’t really think of it that way. I think we have to stop thinking about how to improve our gross leftovers and more just being like, Everything is rolling into the next moment in this fluid way that is informed by how we live our lives.
How much were you cooking at home while you worked in restaurants? My brother is a chef, and he just doesn’t have the time. So I’m curious, is this something you started doing after COVID?
Honestly, I wasn’t really cooking a lot at home because I was getting all of my meals at work and I was too tired to probably do much. But this has been a way I’ve cooked for a long time, before I was cooking in restaurants, even.
I think I alluded to this in whatever I wrote on Instagram, but I see this kind of cooking in kitchens happening already. A cook who has integrity around work, and wants to take care of their coworkers will put effort into a family meal, but they have all of these restrictions around what they can do. They can’t make steak for 50 people. So it’s more like, Here’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and I think I always have the most respect for the cooks who are able to scrutinize what’s in front of them and make it somehow greater than the sum of its parts. I definitely learned a lot from making a lot of family meals and being like, Oh, what am I going to do with these gray tomatoes and these onion scraps and these fermented beet greens?
And that’s one part of cooking in a restaurant that the public never sees, but which translates so well to cooking at home.
Yeah. And just, on an emotional level, there’s something beautiful to me about having a Soup Mother that is bubbling all day, that fills my home with a wonderful smell that I feel connected to. Other people feel that way about their sourdough starter. These are things that ultimately are supposed to not just feed us, but bring us pleasure. I have soup on my stove right now, and it makes my apartment more great. It’s just something that makes you feel good.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.