Saturday, October 10, 2015

Stone Soup

Stone Soup at Vaughan's Lounge
You never know what you're going to find in New Orleans. That guy next to you at the bar might be a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Or a scholar of medieval history. That man at the video poker game might be a Mardi Gras Indian chief. The guy who mows your lawn may be the leader of a second line Benevolent Social Club. The lady who just ordered another glass of wine might be the director of a non-profit assisting victims of sex trafficking, a mover and shaker in city politics, a voodoo queen, or the daughter of an old-time New Orleans aristocracy.

You truly never know.

A couple weeks ago at our regular neighborhood watering hole, Vaughan's Lounge, we talked with one of the bartenders. Turns out in addition to serving up Abita Amber on Sunday nights, Sarah Borealis is an anthropologist with a PhD from Tulane, and a filmmaker. After we got to talking, she invited us to check out a screening of her documentary, which was shown at Vaughan's this week.

The event was sponsored by a Mezcal distributor!
The Path of Stone Soup documents the tradition in San Felipe Usila, a small town in the southern Mexican region of Oaxaca, where the men of the village collaborate on the riverbank to make stone soup, or Caldo de Piedra, for their families. Local ingredients like herbs, chiles and vegetables are mixed in bowls made of hollowed-out gourds; fish and shrimp caught in the river are added, then river rocks that have been heated in wood fires are dropped into the soup, heating it instantly to a boil.

Chef Cesar
At Vaughan's, following the showing, Chef Cesar Gachupin de Dios and his son Victor Gachupin Velasco made a batch of Caldo de Piedra for some 35 ticket-holders.

The fire had been burning since early evening heating the stones. These, I am told, are special stones. They come from the river than flows through San Felipe Usila, because only they have the right minerals to make Stone Soup.

Dining tables were set up on the gallery in front of Vaughan's, with festive decorations that included a Donald Trump pinata.

The gathering was a rather odd mix of grizzled old regulars - the cabinet-maker, the Habitat for Humanity worker, the city Public Works administrator, and other fine folks I'd met during the early evening hours for weeks - and artsy people, hipsters and tourists. There were ladies dressed in Day-of-the-Dead costumes, anticipating Halloween. There were men sporting man-buns and tattoos. There was a woman with bird-feather tattoos all over her limbs - I spoke to her and it turned out she is an ornithologist from Los Angeles, here on vacation.

Chef Cesar began to put the ingredients in each bowl - a dash of salt, a handful of chopped onions, some chopped herbs, some jalapenos. He ladled tomato and chile puree from a plastic bin into each bowl, then followed with a scoop of water. Finally, good-sized head-on shrimps and filets of tilapia went into each bowl.

Then it really got interesting. As Chef Cesar tended each bowl, Victor brought stones hot from the fire. Some glowed deep magenta red. When he dropped a stone into a bowl, the broth immediately boiled up furiously. Chef Cesar stirred and stirred, mixing things up. He repeated this again and again, removing the cooled stone from a bowl only to receive another hot one. I couldn't count how many times this happened; I am not sure whether there was a set amount of stones required, or if there was some condition of the soup that Chef sensed another stone was needed.

Once it was cooked, he served it to the guests. I was so fascinated by watching it that even though I had paid for a serving, I stayed at the edge, taking photos, and so I missed actually tasting the soup. People arrived by taxi and bike, just to watch, or to go into the barroom for a drink.

Well, to be perfectly frank, I had already hedged my bet, food-wise.

I hung out with my friends Linda and Dink, and the secret knowledge Linda had received from our bartender friend Krinkle is that there was a crab boil happening in the back that would be served once all the ticket-holders had been satisfied.

I was holding out for crab.

When it was finally ready, the three of us were the first to pounce. There was a huge steam basket full of crabs, plus a foil pan of corn on the cob. The crabs were seasoned so they were salty and spicy, and the corn was a cool, mellowing contrast.

She-crab on the left. He-crab on the right.
These are blue crabs, and I'm not as familiar with them as I am with West Coast Dungeness crab. I grabbed one. My friend Dink showed me how to pull the little lever on its shell and separate the carapace. "It's a male crab," she said, and showed me the difference between boy crab and girl crab. She had piled her styrofoam clamshell with five or six of the things.

Dink decimating the crabs
She's a tiny lady, but she's a heckuva crab-picker. She industriously worked away at the creature. When I had exhausted mine, she shoved a handful of crab belly-meat at me to eat. "Good?" she asked.


Every time I go to Vaughan's, I swear I meet another interesting person. That night, my friend Linda introduced me to Otter, who is a theatrical impressaria and Bywater real estate wheeler-dealer. It was her birthday that night, so folks were gifting her with dollar bills, which she pinned to her dress as though they were a corsage.

Linda held her own with the crab boil, too. Girl can concentrate!

What a fine night, at a place that has become one of my favorite New Orleans places.


David Duff said...

"Two nations divided by a common language".

So, "man-buns", dare I ask?

Glennis said...

David, that's when men with long hair coil it up into a bun, similar to a traditional woman's hairstyle. Now you're shaming me, I think perhaps I shouldn't be making fun of the phenomenon.

cookingwithgas said...

What were the bowls made of, asked the potter? I am wondering if they would be clay, wood or stone.
I would have held out for those crabs, but I would have loved a taste of the soup.

Glennis said...

They were hollowed out and dried gourds.

cookingwithgas said...


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

That stone soup sounds like it would be perfectly natural in Cajun/Creole cuisine as well. Looks like a fun night.