Everyone here remembers the story of stone soup. It starts with just a pot of water, and it ends with a flavorful, mighty caldron of soup. There is always a stranger — the one who has nothing but a stone — and some manner of village, with villagers who at first refuse the stranger but who then, finally, make their own contribution to the miraculous, tasty, satisfying end.
I’ve come upon versions of the stone-soup story in which the stranger is a vagabond, a trio of soldiers, a barefoot monk, some Chinese fishermen or a few witches. There are even interpretations of the story that feature a Somali boy, a big-wave surfer, a political lobbyist and one written with an entrepreneur at its center. The stone is an ordinary stone, in others a special polished stone, in others still it’s a bone, a nail, a button from a jacket, a magic shell or even a fox’s tail. And the soup at the end has been Asian fish stew, a matzo-ball soup for Passover, a Muslim feast, a Caribbean gumbo and borscht. And for that entrepreneur I mentioned? What ends up in the caldron is not soup at all but a successful career in business.
But the path from here to there, from water to soup, from nothing to something, from friction and resistance to that satisfied, well-fed village has been what’s always interested me the most. How do we get there? I’m a little surprised there hasn’t yet been a version about restaurants and their owners, who create something from nothing every day, feeding all the villagers. Or one about chefs, who so obviously stand there in the middle of the village square, stirring their pots of water, starting from scratch.
In the version of stone soup I was introduced to as a child, a very old woman sits in the village square beside her caldron of hot water with nothing but a stone in the pot, stirring contentedly. Curious passers-by come along and ask what she is making, and when she tells them, they all have their skeptical reactions. And their disbelief. And their unsolicited advice. But then, eventually, their contributions. The villagers add to the pot what they can spare, and each contribution makes the broth a little more tasty — a cabbage and an onion and an old crust of stale bread and a bit of lamb neck or shinbone. Of course, then a potato is offered, and a handful of salt, and an old carrot from the cellar until all, even the at-first skeptical, are quite satisfied. In fact, merry. The whole while, the old woman simply stirs her pot with careful attention and with an obvious contentment.
I am sure I had this version in the center of my heart when I was trying to open my restaurant, Prune, back in 1999, in the space that had formerly been a beloved little bistro until it suddenly and inexplicably closed. We would be cleaning and painting and moving the chairs around with the doors open — a version of stirring your own pot of hot water with nothing more than a stone at the bottom — and people would pop their heads in: at first excited to think that their old beloved restaurant was coming back but then quickly disappointed to learn it would be a new place instead. I had no experience, and no certainty, and felt a little rattled by their early skepticism: You should open a vegetarian place instead! You should copy the menu from the busy place next door and collect their overflow! You’re gonna call it Prune? They scowled. I eventually put paper up over the windows, locked the front doors and got back to faithfully stirring my pot of water. And for the following 20 years, we fed the village.
As cooks, we used to think of that parable as a kind of template or guiding recipe for the daily staff “family meal” we needed to create every day out of scraps — and not on an allegorical level but in a practical way. The cook assigned to the meal starts with nothing, does a quick scan of the walk-in refrigerator, notices that we have a ton of green beans starting to fade, for example, and she begins to build from there. It can seem grim and impossible at first, to feed our whole little village with nothing but a few sorry green beans. But that’s her stone. From there, she goes around to all her colleagues — the guy working sauté that evening, the gal who will be running the front cold station and so on — and humbly begs her few scraps from each one: a few cooked potatoes, a generous handful of sliced shallots, maybe some cod scrap from the cook who has been butchering fish that day. And then she hunts around for a few minutes in the pantry, the dry-goods shelves and the dairy bins, and perhaps she finds a can of cooked white beans or diced tomatoes or roasted piquillo peppers. Or a cup of rice, a pint of dried lentils, a few eggs she can soft-boil. Of course, she can use a little sesame oil, if she wants to take it that direction, or tarragon vinegar if she steers it that way instead. And by now she is cooking, as they say, with gas.
In all the versions of the story, there is resistance, skepticism, fear, miserliness, scarcity or a suspicion that must first be conquered. And the means to overcoming that friction or resistance has many iterations, depending on the chef. The fox tricks the barnyard animals in the foxtail version. The three soldiers are especially charismatic, entertaining and lively in the soldier’s version. The witches are persuasively scary in the witch’s version.
What is this incredible parable with so many possible meanings? Is it a many-hands-make-light-work story? A story about community and generosity? A religious story about charity, with a little barefoot-Jesus tone to the whole thing? Is it a something-from-nothing story about resourcefulness and creativity? That’s the thing about a stone-soup recipe: It’s what we make it.
Obviously, I’ve always been drawn most to the one in which you start out with nothing but a smart and sincere idea and stay very faithful to your idea, keep your head down, do your work as you believe it should be done. You stir your pot of water faithfully and contentedly, and let the idea itself capture the imagination and curiosity of the villagers. I’ve especially loved that you take enough for yourself — no less, and no more — and you leave the village better than you found it. I’m leaving this column, this is my last, as I go back to the restaurant and start to clean and move the furniture around and finally, in the coming months, take down the paper from the windows all over again. I’m hoping this version of the story still works many years later. I hope it will be much like the game of family meal, but with the larger family, of villagers, seated at the tables, who will all make their enthusiastic contribution to the soup.