by Zada Clarke
As oral folk tale tradition has it, a story changes as it rides the current between ear and mouth. As it is told again and again by different people, characters are dropped, new ones are supplemented, cultural and elemental tweaks are made. The tale of Stone Soup was first documented in 1750 by Madame Noyer of Normandy. I first heard the tale in kindergarten from Lillian Kellman, who told it every Thanksgiving at the Chilmark School for 25 years.
Lillian passed away in January of 2016, and I went looking for her version so that it could be read once again. I was led to her husband Ray, who still lives seasonally in Chilmark.
We sat at his kitchen table a day later and he passed me a manila envelope. The weight of the envelope was heavy, as I knew that his morning had been spent shuffling through Lillian’s stories; ones that were never to be read on paper, but rather told by her. Inside, there was not one final draft neatly typed up, but three pages of tissue thin paper covered in blue ink squiggly lines and notes scrawled in the indents. It was similar to how one would annotate a cookbook; add a pinch of this, replace this word with that one.
Food feeds the body and storytelling feeds the mind. Digest both with an equal amount of thought, and keep this story folded in the kitchen drawer along with the silverware. After a few years you will have your own telling of the tale, with your own vocabulary and style. You will tell it and the story will go on, as it did, as it does.
The Tale of Stone Soup
“On thousands of occasions, to get oneself out of a problem, a little spirit is necessary.”
Three soldiers trudged down a road in a strange country. They were on their way home from the wars. Besides being tired, they were hungry. In fact, they had eaten nothing for two days.
“How I would like a good dinner tonight,” said the first.
“And a bed to sleep in,” said the second.
“But all that is impossible,” said the third. “We must march on.”
On they marched. Suddenly, ahead of them they saw the lights of a village.
“Maybe we’ll find a bite to eat there,” said the first.
“And a loft to sleep in,” said the second.
“No harm in asking,” said the third.
Now, the people of that place feared suspicious strangers. When they saw that three soldiers were approaching down the road, they talked among themselves.
“Here come three soldiers. Soldiers are always hungry, but we have little enough for ourselves. It has been quite a poor harvest.”
And so they hurried to hide their food. They pushed sacks of barley under the hay in the lofts. They lowered buckets of milk down the wells. They spread old quilts over the carrot bins. They hid their cabbages and potatoes under the beds. They hung their meat in the cellars. They hid all they had to eat…then…they waited.
The soldiers stopped first at the homes of Paul and Francoise. “Good evening to you…could you spare a bit of food for three hungry soldiers?”
“Je suis desole, we have no food for ourselves for three days,” said Paul.
Francoise made a sad face. ”It has been a poor harvest.”
The 3 soldiers went on to the house of Albert and Louise. “Could you spare a bit of food, and have you some corner where we could sleep for the night?”
“Oh no,” said Albert. “We gave all we could spare to some soldiers who came before you.”
“Our beds are full,” said Louise.
At Vincent and Marie’s the answer was the same. It had been a poor harvest and all the grain must be kept for seed. So it went all through the village. No one had any food to give away. They all had good reasons. One family had used the grain for feed. Another had an old sick father to care for. All had too many mouths to fill. And it was true that they were not wealthy folk. They were farmers, service folk, butchers, bakers, and tailors. They worked hard.
The villagers stood in the street and sighed. They looked as hungry as they could. The three soldiers talked together. Then the first soldier called out “Good people!”
The peasants drew near.
“We are three hungry soldiers in a strange land. We have asked you for food, and you have no food. Well, then…we’ll have to make some stone soup.”
The peasants stared. “Stone soup?” That would be something to know about.
“First we’ll need a large iron pot,” the soldiers said.
The peasants bought the largest pot they could find. How else to cook enough?
“That’s none too large,” said the soldiers. ”But it will do. And now water to fill it, and fire to heat it.”
It took many buckets of water to fill the pot. A fire was built on the village square and the pot was set to boil.
“And now if you please, three round, smooth stones,” said the soldiers.
Those were easy enough to find. The peasants eyes grew round as they watched the soldiers drop the stones into the pot.
“Any soup needs salt and pepper,” said the soldiers as they began to stir. Children ran to fetch salt and pepper.
“Stones like these generally make good soup…but…if there were carrots it would be much better.”
“Why, I think I have a carrot or two,” said Francoise, and off she ran. She came back with her apron full of carrots from the bin beneath the red quilt.
“A good stone soup should have cabbage,” said the soldiers as they sliced the carrots into the pot. “But…no use asking for what you don’t have.”
“I think I could find a cabbage somewhere,” said Marie, and she hurried home. But instead of just one, she came back with three cabbages from the cupboard under her bed.
“If we only had a bit of beef and a few potatoes, this soup would be good enough for a rich man’s table,” remarked the soldiers.
The peasants thought that over. They remembered their potatoes and the sides of beef hanging in the cellars. They ran to fetch them, whispering.
“A rich man’s soup, and all from a few stones. It seems like magic!”
“Ahhh,” sighed the soldiers as they stirred in the beef and potatoes. “If only we had a little barley, and a cup ofmilk, this soup would be fit for the king himself. Indeed he asked for just such a soup when last he dined with us.”
The peasants looked at each other. The soldiers had entertained the king? WELL!
“But no use asking for what you don’t have,” the soldiers sighed.
The peasants brought their barley from the lofts, they brought their milk from the wells. The soldiers stirred the barley and milk into the steaming broth while the peasants stared. At last the soup was ready.
“All of you shall taste,” the soldiers said. “But first a table must be set.”
Great tables were placed in the square, and all around were lighted torches. Such a soup! How good it smelled, and truly fit for a king. But then, the peasants asked themselves. “Would not such a soup require bread…and a roast…and cider?”
Soon a banquet was spread and everyone sat down to eat.
Never had there been such a feast. Never had the peasants tasted soup, certainly not one made from stones! Fancy that!
They ate and drank and ate and drank and after that they danced. They danced and sang far into the night.
At last they were tired. The three soldiers asked, “Is there not a loft where we could sleep?”
“Let three such wise and splendid gentlemen sleep in a loft? Indeed, they must have the best beds in the village”
So, the first soldier slept in the priest’s house.
The second soldier slept in the baker’s house.
The third soldier slept in the mayor’s house.
In the morning the whole village gathered in the square to give them a send-off.
“Many thanks for what you taught us,” the peasants said to the soldiers. “We shall never go hungry now that we know how to make soup from stones.”
“Oh! It’s all in the knowing how,” said the soldiers, and off they went down the road.