Visual historian Sarah Borealis talks about culinary tradition, eating in Oaxacan markets, and her new documentary “The Path of Stone Soup,” which explores the culinary heritage of Oaxaca’s Chinantla region. As Borealis explains,Chinantla’s specialty is a freshwater seafood soup “cooked to perfection using red hot stones.” I was interested to learn that the dish is traditionally prepared by men.
The 24-minute documentary is the work of an international team that includes Borealis, director Arturo Juarez Aguilar, and César Gachupin de Dios, the patriarch of the restaurant where Borealis first experienced the Chinantla’s ancient culinary tradition. You can check out the stone soup kickstarter page to see a preview of the documentary. Oh, and if you’re interested in eating stone soup in Oaxaca, the family restaurant is now located at the 11.9 km point on the highway from Oaxaca City to el Tule, in Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca. Yet another food destination on my bucket list.
What are your favorite aspects of spending time in Mexico?
I love the sense of connectedness with the deep past. As a cultural historian, I am trained to recognize cultural continuities, and in Mexico more than any other place I have had the pleasure to travel, I find that the past lives on in the present. I tend to spend a lot of time in markets, where I chat with anyone I come into contact with, taste everything that smells good, and just let myself be absorbed by the collective energy of these bustling communities
What is your culinary background?
I grew up in rural North Dakota, where my mother grew up on a dairy farm, where my grandmother baked bread and cooked three meals a day for their hardworking family of eleven. She later put herself through college by working in a diner, and I was raised on all the classics–french dips, ruebens, borscht, noodle soups, etc. My father is a large animal veterinarian with ranchers as his main clientele, and beef was always on the menu. I have always been a good eater, and traveling made me curious about new tastes and textures and traditions. Moving to New Orleans at age eighteen opened a whole new culinary world for me–I taught myself to cook seafood and red beans within a few years. My partner Jimmy is from Lafayette, Louisiana, and so my repertoire has expanded to smoked game, pickled vegetables, and meat pies. Mexico is always in the mix–I use jalapeño in almost everything!
Favorite Oaxacan foods?
Honestly, stone soup is my all time favorite. The way the seafood is poached in a matter of minutes gives it a perfect taste and texture- the individual ingredients maintain their individual flavors and there is something alchemical about the process. When I can’t eat in the stone soup restaurant, I love to get a tlayuda with cecina or a quesadilla with epazote on the street in downtown Oaxaca City. In general, I love anything that is fresh and local. In the pueblo of San Felipe Usila, I tried tortillas made from yucca, and they are both memorable and delicious.
Had you heard about stone soup before you tried it at Don Gachupin’s restaurant?
Only in the fable that my kindergarten teacher read to us back in North Dakota. Stone Soup is a folk tale that appears in many different cultures, and I love the way that a hot meal can bring people together.
How widespread is this culinary practice?
As far as I know, this particular preparation of stone soup is unique to the Chinantla. However, since I have been working on this project, many people have approached me with their own stories of other places where soup is cooked with hot stones. Part of our vision for the future of the stone soup project is to launch a website where people from all over the world can submit their recipes and experiences for making and eating stone soup. In the Chinantla, the preparation of stone soup is a communal act. It’s a ritual offering for honored members of the community, such as women, children, the elderly, as well as guests held in high esteem. I like the idea of using new media to extend the reach of this local tradition; in the process, creating stronger interpersonal bonds within the global community.
Were people eager to talk to you or did you encounter some resistance?
I participated in a documentary filmmaking workshop for historians in Oaxaca City in 2009. My final project was a three minute mini-doc abut stone soup, which I filmed in the restaurant. National Geographic’s Intelligent Traveler blog featured that piece, and I gave the master copy to César to use as he wished. We established a high level of confidence with one another from our earliest meeting. He is a leader and a social activist in the Chinantec community. He sought the approval of the Usila council of elders to extend us an invitation, and of course, we accepted.
Many of these elders are featured in the documentary. They represent such deep repositories of knowledge and it was an unbelievable honor to work with them. This past June we had the opportunity to screen the film for them in San Felipe Usila, and that experience brought me to a real moment of clarity regarding my professional role as a visual historian.
What is your goal with your Kickstarter campaign to bring the crew and cooks to Canada’s Devour! Food and Film Festival?
We hope to connect with the community on such themes as the local food movement, environmentally sustainable development practices, the importance of celebrating indigenous cultures, and eating, laughing and storytelling with friends! We also hope too increase our support base in hopes of parleying interest into a broadcast and or distribution deal for the documentary… which will raise awareness about environmental and developmental issues in the Chinantla as well as in indigenous communities worldwide.
You did graduate studies in Latin American history, and I am a history buff, so I couldn’t resist asking you one final off-topic question. Who is your favorite Mexican historical figure and why?
Aurora Reyes, Mexico’s first female muralist. She was a social activist, an educator, a poet, a painter, a mother, a grandmother, a visionary and most importantly, she lived her life on her own terms. I have also heard she threw some killer parties at her house in Coyoacan…
editor’s note: Interested in catching the documentary? The film’s festival appearances will be announced on their facebook page. If you would like to arrange a private screening, contact us and we’ll put you in touch with Sarah.