As I gaze into a cupboard overflowing with various canned goods and a fridge full of slowly browning veggies, my dad’s words echo in my head: Time to make some stew.
It’s the perfect cupboard-cleaning catchall. Just dump all that shit into a pot with some chili powder, and baby, you’ve got a stew goin’.
So here’s a thought experiment: What if the stew never stopped? What if you could keep your cupboard clean by perpetually dumping various meats and beans from various meals into it? This, allegedly, is a medieval tradition called a “perpetual stew,” and it catches the attention of slow-cooker loyalists every year.
So what is a perpetual stew, and does it stand up to today’s food standards? I asked a few experts to help out.
The Questionable History of the Perpetual Stew
Almost every mention of perpetual stew cites a single source: Food in History by Reay Tannahill. Published in 1972, Tennahill’s book explains that medieval peasants would rarely empty out their cauldron “except in preparation for the meatless weeks of Lent.” The rest of the time, the cauldron sat above the fire for weeks on end; any available food was simply thrown in.
The medieval perpetual stew, she says, was “an ever-changing broth enriched daily with whatever was available… a hare, hen or pigeon would give it a fine, meaty flavor; the taste of salted pork or cabbage would linger for days, even weeks.”
In addition, there is Joann Jovinelly and Jason Netelkos’ book The Crafts and Culture of a Medieval Manor. According to Jovinelly and Netelkos, poor families in medieval Europe often ate a stew-like concoction called “pottage.” And in some cases, the same kettle of pottage “remained on the fire for several days. Ingredients were added as they became available, and the thick, soupy meal was in steady supply to feed growing families and guests.”
So maybe “perpetual” stew is a bit of an embellishment. But the embellishment might not stop there. Is the stew even real?
“I have my doubts about this,” explains Ken Albala, a history professor at the University of the Pacific and author of many food-history books. “Tannahill doesn’t offer any contemporary evidence, and it’s not in any cookbook or record I’ve ever seen. I think people just assumed that since the fire was on, people would have left the stew bubbling and kept adding to it while it sat over the hot ashes.”
But Albala has no good reason to think they actually did. “Why not cook as much as you need, eat it all, then rinse out the pot? There’s no economic advantage to letting it go indefinitely, and I don’t really think [there’s] any gastronomic benefit at all.”
“You could have a perpetual stew only if you had a perpetual fire, and in the past, this was not cheap or easy,” says Rachel Lauden, another food historian. “On the other hand, our easy assumption that we can eat different things at different times of day and different days of the week is a post-19th century phenomenon — except for the rich.”
Albala is aware of Asian cultures “keeping a stock going forever, and even stories of a Japanese sauce that was used and added to for years, even saved carefully during the war to make yakitori. But medieval peasants? I suspect this is fakelore.”
Oh. Maybe the Perpetual Stew Isn’t Real. But Is It Tasty?
“One hundred percent not worth the effort,” says Jim Mumford, a nuclear engineer turned professional chef and food blogger.
If taste is what you’re after, Mumford says, think again. “After 24 to 48 hours, you’ve extracted all of the flavor out of the meat/veggies/etc. that you’re realistically going to get.” So, say you added one chicken leg per day: “You’d then hypothetically eat one leg and some broth every day as well, and every day it would have to be adjusted for seasoning and water added.”
This could work for a while, he says. But after a week or so, “you’d leech out so much fat and gelatin that the broth would be… chunky. And not in the canned-soup way.”
What if you just added different leftovers every day? “My guess is you’d have a mashup of flavors, and textures, that would be two thirds whatever was recently added, one third funky old stuff,” Mumford says.
As for the money-saving argument, Mumford is suspicious of that as well. “The problem is, at a heavy boil, the meat/veggies would break down quickly; plus you would have to keep replenishing water. The additional food, gas and water cost to keep a stew viable would overwhelm any financial benefits of such a long cook anyways.”
Okay, Perpetual Stew Is Neither Good Nor Real. But Is It Safe?
Who are we to judge people on their tastes, even if it’s week-old meat mush? The more important question: Is eating the same food from the same pot in perpetuity… dangerous?
“Theoretically, some food can be safe for a prolonged period of time provided it is held at a safe temperature above 140 degrees at a minimum — but different temps are needed for different meats,” explains dietitian Taylor Wolfram.
“However, that doesn’t mean that the foods won’t start to deteriorate or decompose after a certain amount of time,” she adds. From an official standpoint, Wolfram says, the Food Safety Inspection Service places an eight-hour maximum on keeping food at a “holding temperature, and the FDA recommends not adding new food to something that has been sitting on a buffet. You could extend this to the concept of ‘perpetual stew.’”
Overall, Wolfram says, she wouldn’t recommend it.
Government restrictions be damned. Mumford says it may “not be as dangerous as you would think,” but he has some caveats.
Beyond keeping it heated above 140 degrees, you’d need to add “plenty of salt and acids in order to likely keep most of the nasty bugs away… for a while,” Mumford says. “Some bacteria, like botulism, can live in conditions under 185 degrees, so that stew would have to be kept at a boil if you really wanted to be safe.”
Mumford explains that some restaurants use the same stock base for decades, so you could follow their germ-killing practice and and boil it twice a day. But again, “that means anything with substantial solids would get very mushy very quick. And even then, only some bugs die at a simmer. Some rare ones don’t die via boiling. They need acid, salt or voodoo to really be safe.”
Fuck All That. I’m Making One.
Hey, others have done it and lived.
Dave Santos, a professional chef in New York, documented his perpetual stew on Twitter in 2016. “We had it going for 10 to 12 months, and I had a blast,” he tells MEL. “I do believe there is a benefit to it until science proves it otherwise.”
Santos’ stew on day two:
Santos’ stew about six months later:
However, Santos’ experiment was mostly to see what kind of broths might arise from the depths — and test the mettle of his crew, too, as they sampled the brown sludge they’d concocted. “One day I butchered a fish, the next day pork. It changed from day to day. The whole staff drank it, [and] many of us credited it to our not getting sick that entire winter season.”
“If you were to attempt such a stew — and again, I’m not saying you should — make sure your broth has plenty of salt and acid, and try to maintain as high of a boil as possible,” Mumford advises. “And make sure whatever you have in it is hearty and can stand up to a very long cook.”
In conclusion, the stew is possible. But that’s about it, Mumford says. “Is it at all worth it outside of a social media stunt? Only if you like botulism.”