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What Stone Soup Means to a Seasoned Chef

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.

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