Three days to payday, and reduced to rifling the pantry and refrigerator for something to throw into a pot. I’ve been letting the groceries run down as I gradually overcome my lifelong need to have plenty of stores on hand, and to buy bulk amounts when the price is right. For example I have recently finished the last of a huge pot of Best brand mayonnaise which I bought 14 months ago because it was an extraordinary bargain in terms of cost per gram.
But I digress.
I am not starving – still have plenty of rice, lentils and spices, but I am a little tired of dahl and rice dishes. I fancy something with a European flavour. If I had some ham bones I would make pea and ham soup. If I had some steak, I would cook steak and eggs – if I had some eggs…..
I have a few scraps of assorted frozen vegetables left,- cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, frozen mixed carrots, peas, corn and beans, but sadly no onions, and my neighbours are travelling so I have no one to scrounge from. But there is tomato paste – also bought in a huge bulk tin which I then froze in pots – a part packet of Maggi Chicken soup left over from an attempted creamy chicken macaroni dish, I have herbs I brought in bulk from NZ, bay leaves, and plenty of garlic. I have a half a large jar of anchovies in the fridge. Pop one in. I serendipitously found a rather badly freezer-burnt sausage that had somehow escaped from a ziplock bag in the freezer and concealed itself under the frozen bread rolls, hiding in fear long after his companions were devoured. Into the pot. I found a few left-over cashews. Added. And so on.
I do have canned foods on hand, but by now I was determined not to open any tins, and see what befalls.
Thus I set out to make stone soup, Except I was the only contributor. So I had to cheat. For genuine stone soup, the only contribution the cook himself should make is the stone.
It was the story of stone soup that firmly set my life long fondness for folk tales and faery stories. My Dad used to tell me stories when I was a child; Jack and the Beanstalk , Jack the Giant Killer – and so on. I think he may actually have told me Stone Soup too. This nightly story had been so special to me that I made very sure that I did the very same for my own children. I read to them very night, or told tales I knew well, or made up stories that incorporated the elements of every old story I knew, so that one day they might recognise them again, as I did with some of Dad’s stories. I even made some up completely just as I suspect Dad did. Many times the told me I should write down my tales. maybe I will yet. In any case, I like to think the stories I told them contributed to my girls’ development into the fine outstanding, literate and coherent young ladies they turned out to be.
Stone Soup, found in the library of Bunnythorpe Primary School, made me aware there were more BOOKS out there, with other great tales of which I had never before heard. It was also at Bunnythorpe that I was introduced by Mr Mercer – the only primary school teacher whose name I remember – to The Hobbit. he read us a bit every day after lunch. I was enthralled and excited by the story, and wanted more. I became excited about all the books that existed, and what they might contain. At that age I had already read The Three Musketeers, much of which I did not understand, though one chapter haunted and frightened me for years. I read over and again the scene in which Milady de Winter is taken out into the lake and decapitated. Even though she had done some pretty terrible things, and caused the death of Constance, the little seamstress, I felt very sorry for her at the end.
But I digress once more. I was writing of Stone Soup. To pass the time while mine cooks.
The story, as I recall it, goes something like this:
Once upon a time, after the war with Napoleon, three honest soldiers were wending their way home through Europe. The people who lived in the area through which they were travelling had been plundered and ravaged by armies passing through, repeatedly advancing and retreating. And so they were not inclined to be very hospitable to the three soldiers, even though they were honest and peaceful, and had fought on the side of Right.
The soldiers arrived in a small town one evening, and set up a bivouac under a tree in the town square. they lit a fire. As people passed they asked if anyone could spare a few morsels of food for three hungry soldiers. Everyone told them that there was not a scrap of food left in the area, as a result of the war, and the devastation it had caused to their crops, not to mention the constant commandeering and stealing of their livestock and stored foods by passing armies. The villagers claimed to be hungry too. They said they had nothing even with which to feed themselves and their families, and so could not spare food for three strangers.
“There’s nothing left here to eat ” they said. “Sleep the night and move on in the morning”.
“It doesn’t matter,” one of the soldiers said. “We can feed you, if things are as you say. We have with us a magic stone that has sustained us all through the war, and will feed us until we get home. I shall make some stone soup to share with you all.”
He took a large iron cauldron which two of his companions had carried between them, and placed it over the fire they had lit. He half filled it with water from the well in the town square.
Then, with a flourish he produced from a pocket of his greatcoat an ordinary-looking black stone, the size of a large potato, oval and slightly flattened and worn smooth by years in a river. He said, “Magic stone, magic stone, magic stone – nourish us”, and carefully placed it in the pot.
The rumour of magic, and food, spread through the village, and many villagers came to watch. The soldier stirred his stone consomme, and sniffed the rapidly heating water, licking his lips with anticipation.
“I do love a bowl good stone soup” said one of the other soldiers. “but I have to confess that the same thing every day, even if it is as good as this, makes me long for something just a little different now and then. I would like to have a different flavour for a change. If only we had some cabbage to throw in”.
The other soldier said “or a carrot or two perhaps…”
The first soldier nodded, still stirring, and said ” I always think an onion or two always adds a little something to a good soup. Nevertheless, we can be glad we have the stone. Many don’t even have that”.
Some of the villagers slipped away and returned shortly with a few carrots, a couple of onions and half a cabbage. The soldier accepted them gratefully and chopped them up with his knife, tossing them in to the stone soup.
One of the soldiers then said “My old grandma used to throw a ham bone into her cabbage soup. That was always a special treat”.
Soon a villager diffidently offered a ham bone, with a little meat still on it, that he mysteriously produced from somewhere. Into the pot it went.
And so the story goes.
The villagers were gradually persuaded to produce a few potatoes, some mushrooms, a few beans and so on and so forth, until at last the cauldron was indeed magically filled with a thick, delicious soup. Enough for all to share. The soldiers slept well with their hunger satisfied, and so did the villagers.
In some versions of the story, the villagers offered a lot of money to buy the stone from the soldier, and he sold it to them, for he could always get another at the next river. In other versions, being an honest man, he refused, and kindly told them that the stone was not really magic, except it had the property of persuading people to work together, contributing what little they have to help themselves and their neighbours.
Some say this is the true meaning behind the story of the loaves and fishes. I certainly think so. Getting people to share and cooperate is indeed a miracle. One that need some skill to perform, but does not require any supernatural powers.
Actually, I think my version is pretty good. Now, while I was writing this, my soup cooked merrily in my rice cooker. I have just had a bowl and found it was delicious. On first tasting, it reminded me of something. Very familiar. But something was missing… Suddenly I realised what it was, and rushed to the fridge. There is still a little Parmesan in a jar.
That finished off my soup perfectly. Minestony!
Incidentally, I have been running all my longer blogs lately through “I Write Like” and each has so far been in the style of Cory Doctorow.
This one, however, was in the style of Chuck Palahniuk.