From the Mountains of Colombia, A Revelatory Soup


Story and photography by Lindsay Sterling

Leonor Londono McGinn, the Colombian-American grandmother of my daughter’s schoolmate, taught me how to make her favorite food from her childhood. It’s a popular soup called sancocho, made with chicken broth, carrots, celery, whole sections of corn on the cob, whole pieces of bone-in chicken, and big chunks of potatoes, yuca root, and green plantains. My favorite part was the slices of avocado and fresh cilantro on top. After forty years of serving avocado room temperature or cold, it was liberating to eat avocado warm, melting into soup.

Yuca, also known as cassava and manioc, is a white-fleshed tropical tuber that was popular among indigenous cultures in South America. It’s like a really waxy, creamy potato. Green plantain, also known as unripe plantain, is similarly starchy, soft, and mild. It looks like a green banana but has no banana flavor. In this soup, the yuca, the plantain, and potato soak up the delicious broth and are really otherworldly. Part of the reason the chicken broth tasted so special was that she added three tablespoons of sofrito, a puree of garlic, onion, culantro (similar to cilantro) and green and red peppers. She also added generous sea salt, black pepper, oregano, thyme, and a little allspice.

Leonor was born in Colombia in a coastal town, but grew up inland in Bogotá. “Bogotá is like Colorado,” she said, “It’s at 9,000 feet! When I go back I get short of breath.” When she was twenty she moved from Colombia to New York. “I found a place in the world in the U.S.” She lived in Babylon on Long Island for 38 years before retiring from a 30-year nursing career and moving to Maine. When I asked her if she still considered herself Colombian, she replied, “I am Colombian, and I am American. I’m very adaptable. Wherever I lived I developed roots.”

Often I find myself craving a clear identity. Leonor and this soup-of-many-ingredients are reminders of how beautiful multiplicity can be. We don’t have to be one thing. We can be many things. Turns out, some of her ancestors in Colombia had come from Poland. And so the soup of identity goes: we are made of many, many ingredients! In addition to being a grandmother, Leonor is also a Reiki practitioner, a watercolor painter, and a spiritual guide. She leads the Wisdom of Life Gathering the first Monday of the month 6-8pm at Leapin’ Lizards in Freeport. Describing the gathering, she said, “We meditate, share what we experience when we meditate, and then work out how we can elevate our moment or our being. We identify our blocks, the early teachings that we incorporated in our life and didn’t serve us. Where are we going and what do we need to get rid of?”

 While we were cooking, Leonor recalled a favorite book, Like Water For Chocolate. She confessed that cooking wasn’t her first-choice activity. She’d rather curl up with a good book. “But what you put into your cooking is reflected,” she said. If I were to put a finger on what Leonor put in her soup, I’d say it was liberation. I could feel it from that first bite of melting avocado. When I cook this soup again, I imagine not only am I going to make a leap closer to the person I want to be, I’m going to remember what she taught me. You can boil green plantains. Happiness is a choice. And there’s nothing stopping you from a new beginning.