22 July 2008

Stone Soup

I'm sure that you can tell, if you know the tale, that my favourite story is Stone Soup. If you don't know the tale, I'll tell the version I heard years ago from one of my high school teachers (she loved using fables to help dissect higher forms of literature).

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A short time after the war, a solider headed back home on foot, as he had very little money left over after the years of fighting. The villages that he passed were as poor as he was, because the whole country's resources had been drained by the war. Few farmers had time to till their fields, as they were out on the front lines of battle. Because of this, people closely guarded what little food they had left.

The soldier came upon a small village, with only a few houses, huddled together, as if to give each other support. He asked around for some food, and maybe a place to sleep. Unfortunately, as the villagers were desperately poor too, he was met with "We have nothing to eat ourselves! How can we share with you?"

"I understand," he said. "Since you good people have nothing to share with me, I will then have to share with you. Can somebody please loan me a large iron pot, filled with water?"

"Whatever for," asked the innkeeper.

"I am going to make stone soup for the entire village, and I need a pot big enough to feed everyone."

The innkeeper looked doubtful, but he sent his wife to fetch a pot, while he went to draw water from the well. The soldier went out into the surrounding forest, and came back with a few hefty armfuls of wood. He built a large, cheerful fire, and set down the pot of water onto the fire.

"Now," he announced, "I will add the most important ingredient: the magic stone used to make stone soup." He slipped a large, smooth stone into the pot of water, and watched the water come up to the boil. While the water heated, he chatted with the crowd of villagers that was slowly beginning to build up around him. Never had they seen someone cook such a large meal in public like that!

"Stone soup is filling and tasty on its own, but I've noticed that it's always better with a bit of salt and pepper." One of the villagers brightened, and said, "I have some salt and pepper! I'll be right back." He ran to his house, and returned with a small jar of salt, and a bit of black pepper. The solider thanked the villager, and added some to the pot.

He told tales of his travels across the land, and how he'd had Stone Soup with cabbage, and carrots. Two others broke off from the group, and returned in a short while with some cabbage and carrots. The soldier thanked them as well. "What else goes well with Stone Soup," asked another man. "Potatoes are wonderful in Stone Soup! So are turnips." Shortly thereafter, a bunch of turnips and potatoes were tipped into the large, and more delicious smelling pot of soup.

As the time wore on, more and more villagers brought more and more things to help build the taste of stone soup: lentils, dried herbs, squash, and garlic and onion. The soup filled the village square with its delicious smells, and the laughter of the people filled the village with the resounding cheer that can only come when many friends come together.

The soldier explained all the different manifestations of Stone Soup, and how this one would be the best of all, because this village had such a variety of ingredients. Finally, the soup was done, and the soldier ladled out as much soup as anyone wanted to eat. The whole village was well fed, and in a much more happy mood, as they'd just spent all this time together, in the company of neighbours and friends, to make something that everyone can share.

The next morning, after the last vestiges of the soup were being scraped from the bottom of the pot, the soldier thanked everyone for the wonderful meal, and made to leave on his journey home again. The mayor and the rest of the villagers begged the man to sell his magic stone to them, so that they could continue to feed the village when he left. He refused, and said, "I won't sell it to you, but I'll give it to all of you, to share. Whenever the village is going through times of need, make Stone Soup, and share it with whoever wants it. On that condition, I'll give you my magic stone." Of course, the villagers heartily agreed, and the man passed on his "magic" stone with a twinkle in his eye.

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I know there's other versions out there, and that in some of them, it's more than one soldier, in others, he refuses to sell the stone, and in still others, there's more reluctance on the part of the villagers. This is the version I remember (with my own embellishments added; what kind of story teller doesn't put his own mark on a story!?), and it's one that I hope you enjoy. A group that exemplifies the spirit of Stone Soup is called Food not Bombs. Check them out, when you get a chance, and start a local chapter if you don't have one already.