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The Legend of Stone Soup

June 1, 2009

South Carolina boasts an interesting array of local festivals. Charleston is host to Spoleto. The town of Salley is home to the Chitlin’ Strut.  Leesville has a Poultry Festival. Pickens sponsors the Whipperstompers Weekend. Irmo features the Okra Strut; Pageland, a Watermelon Festival; Gaffney, both a Peach Festival and the Broad River Antique Plow Day. Whitmire pitches a Party in the Pines. Canadys promotes the Edisto Riverfest. Cowpens celebrates the Mighty Moo Reunion. Greenville throws the Crawdad Boil. From Daufuskie Day south of Hilton Head to Quilt Day in Landrum, the Palmetto State offers a party of some sort nearly every weekend of the year.

The town of Woodruff is home of the Stone Soup Storytelling Festival.

“Stone Soup” was originally a Grimm Brothers’ tale in which conniving strangers trick a starving town into giving them some food.

There are many variations of the story. In the Portuguese version the lone traveler is a priest.

In the United States, during The Great Depression, many families were unable to put food on the table every day. It became a practice to place a large and porous rock in the bottom of the stockpot. On days when there was food, the stone would absorb some of the flavor. On days when there was no food, the stone was boiled, and the flavor was released into the water, producing a weak soup.

In a French version, the three travelers are soldiers returning home from the Napoleonic wars. In her children’s book entitled Stone Soup, Marcia Brown retells the old French version. Her book won a Caldecott Medal in 1947.

In some variations, the stone is replaced with other inedible objects. In these forms the story might be called button soup, wood soup, nail soup, or axe soup.

Clare and I recently enjoyed a delicious meal at the delightful Stone Soup Restaurant in Landrum. Inside the menu, we found yet another version of the legend. It reflects the culture of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Allow me to share an Upstate version of the folktale.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, it wasn’t my time and wasn’t your time, but it was a long time ago, there was a village in the southern mountains.  The people had endured a severe drought.  Crops had failed.  Every family was impoverished and suffering from deprivation.

An old woman lived on a mountainside.  She was the best cook in the entire county.  One day the old woman hitched her skinny donkey to a wooden cart.  She lifted a large cast iron pot onto the cart and made her way down a winding, narrow road to the village.  Along the way she picked up fallen branches and sticks, and stacked them beside the pot.  As she crossed a dry creek bed, she selected one large round stone and added it to her load.

Finally, she came to the center of town.  She arranged the sticks to build a fire and put her cooking pot in place.  She drew water from the well, pouring bucket after bucket into the cast iron vessel. Into the water, she plopped the stone! She lit the fire and sat down in the shade of a tree to wait.  People gathered around, curious to see what the old woman was up to.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m making soup,” she said.

The people noticed that the only thing in the pot of water was the large rock.

“What kind of soup are you making?” someone asked.

“I’m making a delicious stone soup,” she said.

One neighbor asked, “How could it be delicious?  There is no seasoning.”

“I have no seasoning. I have only a stone.”

“I have garlic cloves and sprigs of rosemary that survived the drought.  I’ll add those to the pot,” one said

Soon, the simmering water captured the aroma of the herbs. More people came in curiosity.

“I have some beets that I can contribute,” offered another.

Then, the soup began to turn red!

A man brought a few potatoes.  One had two onions.  A woman gave a bunch of carrots.  Someone threw in corn.  Before long, every person in the village, bringing what little they had, contributed to the pot of simmering soup.  An old man killed and plucked his only chicken and put it in the pot.  Before long the entire village had gathered, savoring the pleasant aroma and looking forward to the delicious soup.

Finally, the old woman said, “I think the soup is ready.  If each person will bring a spoon and a bowl, I have a ladle. We will all have supper together.”

That night every person in the village ate well.  Bowls of soup were delivered to invalids in their homes.  Everyone agreed, it was the best soup ever!

The story of the stone soup is about cooperation amid scarcity. If we all work together, we all benefit.

The tale of stone soup is a parable for our community.  When times are difficult, everybody suffers.  There is a human tendency to hoard whatever we have for ourselves.

If we are willing to share, our gifts are multiplied. Far more people than we might ever have imagined will be blessed. We, too, will receive a blessing.

That is the legend – and the miracle – of stone soup.

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2009
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