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Stone Soup

Fabled recipe gets a culinary correction

By Marina Wolf

I've never had stone soup, but I know about it from the story in which three hungry soldiers on their weary way home from the war seek shelter and sustenance in a suspicious village. Denied food by the villagers, who had hidden their own victuals, the travelers went about preparing soup from a stone and water.

As they hinted at how much better the soup would be with this ingredient or that, the villagers were stirred to pull their foodstuffs out of hiding and throw them in the pot--salt and pepper, carrots, cabbage, beef, potatoes--until a full and rich soup was bubbling away, and the residents were setting up tables for a feast in the town square.

Now, the story offers a good idea for a casual dinner party, and the process is emotionally and metaphorically correct. The stone is obviously neither flavoring nor food, but a magnet for bringing humble ingredients together and exciting the villagers' imaginations.

But as a recipe, "Stone Soup" is procedurally flawed, and I'd like to set the record straight with a culinarily correct retelling of the tale. . . .

The soldiers looked at the gathering of peasants--who had put on their saddest, most hungry faces--and then talked among themselves. Finally, they turned to the townspeople and proclaimed, "If you are hungry too, then we must make what we can from what we have. We'll make stone soup."

The villagers' eyes grew wide at this. Soup from a stone? That would be well worth the cooking lesson, and a good recipe for lean times ahead. They hurried to bring out the largest kettle in the village and built an enormous roaring fire over which to cook. As the kettle heated, the soldiers requested and received three small, round stones, which they then threw into the kettle with three loud clanks.

"These stones should make a pretty good soup," said one soldier as he stirred the rattling stones. "But it would be even better if the stones could be cooked a little while with some onions in a bit of oil. And garlic--well, that would perhaps be too luxurious. . . ."

The villagers discovered that they might have a drop or two of olive oil and a few onions left in the back of their poor pantries, so they ran off to chop up an apronful of onions and a handful of garlic, and lugged back a liter of oil. The onions hit the hot oil with a hiss and a marvelous savory smell, and the peasants' mouths began to water.

The soldiers continued to stir the contents of the kettle, making sure the onions didn't burn. "Of course, this stone soup would be something special if we had a carrot or two to go in it, and perhaps some celery," said one of the men. "Now would be the time, because those vegetables take a while to cook. But why ask for what you don't have?" he concluded with a shrug.

"Well, now, I could probably round up some carrots," said one of the watching women and hurried off. "And I can check my cellar to see if I have any little bunch of celery left," said her neighbor. The two brought back armfuls of produce, which the soldiers accepted without comment and quickly sliced them into the kettle.

"Any stone soup needs some seasoning," said the soldiers as they stirred the pot carefully. "Even a sprinkle of thyme, a dash of salt and pepper--" They had not even finished the sentence before a little girl ran off. She returned with the entire contents of her mother's spice shelf bundled up in her apron.

The soldiers laughed and thanked the girl, and quickly picked through the jars for all the dried green herbs--thyme, marjoram, rosemary. "We add them here because the oils in these herbs come out better cooked in oil than in water," commented one of the soldiers, throwing in pungent pinches of stuff and topping it off with enough bay leaves to make a wreath.

By now the aroma wafting out of the kettle was quite tantalizing, and even the soldiers admitted that they were almost ready to add the water. "But if we only had a little bit of beef and a few potatoes, this soup would be fit for a rich man's table." The villagers looked at each other, scurried off, and within minutes returned, each with a few potatoes or some modest chunk of beef, which they flung, bones and all, into the hissing pot.

By now the soldiers had to take turns stirring. In addition to the stones, there was a considerable amount of food in the pot, and it was important to get everything in contact with the hot kettle. When the beef looked a little brown on the sides, they yelled out to the villagers: "Water! Water! Quickly, now!" And the men formed a bucket brigade from the village well to the kettle, and quickly filled up the kettle with fine, fresh water.

In time the stone soup was bubbling away. Then the soldiers tasted it and added more salt and pepper, and then heaved an enormous lid on top of it. "In stone soup, as in all soup, the flavors need a chance to marry," said one of the soldiers. "Or at least to get to know each other," he added with a wink.

Without prompting, the villagers rushed to set up tables in the town square. As the scent of the delicious soup drifted out across the village, they thought: If this is a rich man's soup, shouldn't it be served with good bread, and a roast, and some of our good cider?

And so a banquet was laid forth, and the soup, when it was finally ladled out, was the best soup any of them had ever tasted. All from a stone!

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From the December 6-12, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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