A Good Soup to Know

Photo and story by Lindsay Sterling

I was in my state's capitol for the day, trying to get a better grip on how our government works. My representative in the Maine State Legislature, Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, graciously introduced me to many people who work there. When she mentioned to the representative of a neighboring district that I write an online cookbook called Immigrant Kitchens, he encouraged me to connect with his wife. “She’s from Colombia,” he said, “and she loves to cook!” A month later, I found myself driving down their long driveway, past acres of gardens, wondering what would come of this this blind, platonic, cooking date.

A soft-spoken woman, Adelaida Gaviria, opened the door with a bright smile and waved me in. On the kitchen counter was a shallow basket filled with freshly picked cilantro from her garden. “I’m going to teach you a famous Colombian soup, called ajiaco (pronounced Ah hee AH Ko), because it’s easy to make, and my family and friends love it – which isn’t true for all the Colombian foods I have made.”

She had already cooked two chicken breasts in salted water with cloves of garlic. As she peeled and sliced potatoes, she explained, “I slice the potato thinly to thicken the broth.” In Colombia, she would use three kinds of potatoes, including a native variety called papa criolla that has deep yellow flesh and disintegrates easily. Because those don’t grow well outside of Colombia, she prefers to use the Yukon gold variety here.

As she blended cooked garlic cloves into the broth with an immersion blender making the broth slightly cloudy, I asked how she ended up in Maine. “I come from a very politically involved family,” she explained, “We were threatened and had many bad things happen to us. I consider myself a refugee.” Her family was victimized by a 5-decades-long civil war that ended up killing more than 220,000 people and causing over five million Colombians to flee their homes. When Adelaida was 14, her mother was kidnapped and held for ransom. She survived and returned, but Adelaida’s first boyfriend, her oldest brother, and her best friend were killed in other embroilments.

When it came time for her to think about college, she chose to leave the violence in her home country and experience life in a safer place. She studied physics at Colorado School of Mines and went on to graduate school at Columbia University in New York. While she was there she fell in love with a fellow graduate student, Seth Berry. During a school break, when he was visiting Colombia, her sister-in-law made this soup for him. He loved it so much, that her sister-in-law said, “Adelaida, you have to learn how to make this soup!”

Adelaida and Seth eventually married and moved to his peaceful hometown in Maine. She recalled, “When Seth and I came to Maine, I was in love with the beautiful landscape. Winter didn’t bother me.” She has learned how to garden here, gathering knowledge and expertise from Seth’s family, fellow gardeners, and experience. Four years ago she went “corn-crazy,” as she described it, growing 10 varieties of corn. She used up their whole propane tank making another Colombian favorite: arepas. Over the years she has enjoyed living and raising a family here, teaching in the public schools, running a school garden, and cooking. In their town there is an annual community dinner in the dark of winter. “I have a standing request for this soup,” Adelaida says, “People say they wait the whole year for it.”

I can see why. Each bite is at once soothing and exciting. Ajiaco is a like chicken soup, but with thicker broth and the added excitement of corn, capers, potatoes, slices of avocado, chopped cilantro, and a splash of cream.