Stone Soup: An Old English Parable

A tale for Imbolc--a celebration for which the magic ingredient is community.

BY: As told by Kaatryn MacMorgan

 

A weary traveler, in the depths of winter, came into a dark village. His feet were sore and his stomach was empty. He walked, door to door, with nothing but a single copper coin to his name, and asked the villagers if he could buy some of their food. At each door, a gaunt villager told him that they were starving, unable to spare even a morsel of their winter stores.

Finally, the young man sat down in the center of the square, aware of the eyes peeking at him from shuttered windows. He reached down, brushed some snow from a small rock beneath his feet, and lifted it. With a start, he leapt to his feet, looked up to the shuttered windows, cleared his throat and made an announcement.

"You silly, starving people! How can you hide behind your walls, desperate for food when you have perfectly good stones like this laying all around you? Does but one of the women here have a good kettle she can loan me? I promise enough stone soup to feed her whole family if she loans it to me for the day!"

The washerwoman had a kettle frozen behind her house, a large kettle last used for stew at Christmastime, too large to use for her family's meager meals and too small for laundry. She volunteered it, and the young man dragged it, full of snow, from the outdoor hearth it had occupied for a month to the center of the square. Villagers, bored in the dark winter, gathered around to help the man start a fire and melt the snow and ice in the pot. They were all convinced he was nuts, but helped him nonetheless. It was a sleepy village, and his obvious lunacy was worth a few cold feet to observe.

Once the snow had melted, he lifted the stone high for all of the villagers to see and plopped it into the pot. "Stewus blueus magic rock," he chanted, "give us soup within this crock!" He walked three times around the pot and took a spoon someone handed him and dipped it in. Ever the diligent cook, he tasted the water and its mild aftertaste of Christmas stew and shook his head. "It's bland," he told them, "If only I had a bit of salt."

The butcher told him he had salt sitting in his salting pot, the remnants of salting the midwinter's catch, which had run out the week before. It was brown and hardened into one lump, but he'd give it to the man for free.

The man took his offer gladly, and added the brown lump to the pot. He again took a sip. "the magic is working" he told his audience, and, indeed, there was a faint smell of food coming from the pot. He sipped the soup again, and made a face. "It's too sweet!" he said. "If only I had the ends of some turnips, or some radishes to give it some bite!"

Two women looked about and then went into their houses, coming out with half-rotten vegetables. The man carefully cut the rotted parts away and added the vegetables, greens and all.

There was no mistaking that it smelled like food now. The man tasted the soup, and said "It's missing something" and handed the spoon to the brewman's wife, who nodded, then scurried into the closed tavern, returning with a small burlap bag of barley. As she dumped it in, the wife of the mayor objected. "You can't have barley in soup without parsnips!" she declared, and produced a bunch of limp, graying parsnips, which she handed to the man, who skinned them, chopped them and plopped them in.

Another woman objected as well, adding a fat, dry onion to the broth, and another, and still another, each adding the small secret ingredient that made the soups they made at home "perfect."

Within an hour, the smell of the soup filled the square, and the people came from every crevice and corner with a bowl. The mayor of the town hailed the wanderer as their savior and put him up in his own house after he and the villagers had filled their bellies with delicious, if odd-tasting, stone soup.


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