Thursday, April 11, 2013

Stone Soup

I have only known this story for a couple of years now. My wife, Cherie introduced me to it, surprised that I, a chef, had never heard it before. The moral of the story was not unique to me, having grown up in a religious family, but I believe that there can never too much enchantment and intrigue woven around the importance of community and sharing.

Hundreds of years ago a remote village in a rather desolate country was experiencing a spell of very hard times. Among other hardships, a severe drought had afflicted the land and food had become more and more scarce. In fear of running out of food and starving, farmers held back on their crops and livestock, which they would normally sell to the markets and butcher shops. The market and butcher shop owners started to hold on to their limited supply of foods in fear of starving, and so the villagers also had come to ration and hide their food from needing neighbors and hungered friends. The fear of the uncertainty had gripped the village and every home in it.

On the outskirts of the village, among a dry grey wheat field, stands a small farm house. Dusk is on the horizon as three young children run up from a dry creek bed, heading for their home. Inside the house a father and mother are finishing up what minimal chores are required on such a barren farm.

As the children are preparing for the evening and supper one of them asks the father if they would have enough to eat. Knowing that their cupboards are bare the father and mother conspire on what they are to do in the face of this terrible disappointment. Knowing that they can not, and will not, let their children go hungry, a plan is devised by the loving parents on how they will provide.

As mother collects the horse and hitches it to the wagon, father uncovers a large iron cauldron buried deep in the barn. A cauldron, which he had been commissioned to make for a grand village harvest feast years ago, but was never used due to the drought and hard times. He wheels the cauldron out of the barn and onto the wagon and then collects some fire wood and a huge wooden paddle for the pot. Mother brings the last of the water up from their well and collects a few river stones, loading it all onto the wagon. They gather their children, climb onto the wagon, and head into town to the center of the village.

Once they get to the center of the village, father and mother begin to unload the wagon, first building a mound of firewood, and then setting the iron cauldron on top. Mother then fills the giant cauldron with the well water and tosses in the river stones. Curiosity builds among some of the villagers as they watch the activity. Father lights the wood on fire as the children watch in wonder of what is happening.

"Stone Soup," the father replies when the children ask what they are making. "All we will need is a little time and a few more ingredients to finish the feast". And so the cauldron simmered away and the river stones rattled in the bottom as steam wafted up into the air in the middle of the village.

As you can imagine, villagers who lived close by had been curious of the activity and once they saw the giant iron cauldron steaming away with a whispering rattle, one by one, came to ask the same question the children had asked.

"Stone Soup," the father would again reply. "All we need is a little time and a few more ingredients to finish this feast. If you have anything to lend, you are welcome to share with us." Upon standing in front of a giant cauldron, one could not even stand tall enough to peer in, and hearing the word 'feast', each curious villager would happily offer to contribute to the feast, knowing in return they could partake of the feast.

"Why, of course," The father would reply; and then the mother would chime in and request, "some onions would finish the feast up nicely," or "yes, yes, potatoes are all we need to finish," and "some barely is all that is missing from the recipe."

And so, as the neighboring villagers ran to collect their coveted ingredient, curiosity started to spread, and the word soon reached to the ends of the village, with each family bringing their own cherished ingredient to contribute to the feast. Farmers brought root vegetables, greens and grains. Gardeners brought herbs and fruits; while ranchers brought meats and cream. Shop owners brought tables, chairs, bowls and spoons. The monks brought wine and candles and bread. The gypsies brought exotic spices and their musical instruments. By the time all the villagers had heard the word and come to join in the feast, the center of town had been decorated with tables and candles. Music and wine flowed. And then, the Stone Soup was complete.

Mother ladled the rich soup into the provided bowls as father and the children passed them around to all the tables. Everyone marveled at the feast which was presented to them and proudly mentioned their contribution. They all shared their last possessions for the feast and they all shared with each other the comfort of their community and the nourishment which they provided for each other.

During the middle of the feast, as the gypsies played and the monks poured wine, the candles started to flicker as a wind picked up. Mother and the children looked up to the heavens and the evening moon, felt an almost foreign cold prick on their faces. Rain! Storm clouds started to form as the small, cold pricks became large, wet drops. Rain!

The villagers found themselves under a canopy of rain clouds and curtains of life-giving rain. The heavens were sharing with the village it's own precious ingredient to the feast. And from that day on, this sharing among the people and the earth would bring life to a once still village.

So, one Sunday, Cherie and I took our kids up to the Walnut Creek farmers market to gather ingredients for our first family-style Stone Soup Feast. On the trip to Walnut Creek, Cherie told all of us her version of the story, refreshing our memories and filling our hearts with warm thoughts of togetherness and sharing. Oh, and the mystery of what all could go into a stone soup.

Upon entering the farmers market, Cherie and I explained to the kids that, as we strolled through the stands of produce and homemade items, to keep an eye out for a specific produce item they would like to contribute to  the feast. The only rule we gave was that it had to be a vegetarian option, since Kinsey, our eldest, is a vegetarian. Other than that, everything grown from the earth was game. It didn't matter if they had never tried it, or even knew what it was. It did matter that they knew it would be their dinner and would have to eat it.

We all had a great time hunting through displays of fruits and vegetables. It was a great opportunity for me to share with them my knowledge of the different foods, their flavors and uses. If I couldn't answer their question, I had fun getting the farmers involved with our project. The kids seemed to enjoy the process of discovery and interaction with the vendors there. Plus the encouraged free samples were a treat for all of us. Oh, Elliott? Our youngest? He wanted everything, and at 2 years and 3 months, didn't follow the plan very well, but he did so with 100% enthusiasm. I believe he was most curious about the fresh oysters dad was asking about.
Noah, Bailey,  Me, Cherie, Kinsey & Elliott

Kinsey picked red radishes. Noah decided on yams.  Bailey picked a head of garlic. Elliott got out of his stroller and out of all the produce he touched he ended up with snap peas. Cherie wanted red Swiss chard and I chose celeriac root.

At home as the kids settled in for the evening and played, I washed all of our vegetables and prepared them for cooking in the pot. Cherie is the house saucier or "soupier", so she created the recipe once I was finished. We have a garden with some winter vegetables and also had some other ingredients around the kitchen which made it into the pot. I believe the added ingredients she used were; a river stone (of course), vegetable stock, red onion, barley, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Oh, and one of the rules we set was to use ALL of what we picked up from the farmers market. I decided to roast most of the cloves from the head of garlic Bailey picked out. This helped to mellow and sweeten the garlic, but the soup still packed a punch.
There's the stone

When the soup was finished, each of us came to the pot to be ladled up our first serving, and to be shown the stone, which was actually added and "cooked" as well. It was delicious and everyone happily ate, as we noted our ingredients while fishing them from the soup, commenting on the flavors and textures. It was a fun bonding experience for all of us to come together, create, and share a feast inspired from the story of Stone Soup.

Our Stone Soup


  1. Amazing!!!!!! LOVE this. Thank you.

    1. Thank you Cara.

      I fell in love with this age old tale the first time my wife told me the story.