Tom Ross: What could be better than stone soup?
November 8, 2008
Steamboat Springs — I headed over to United Methodist Church on Oak Street on Friday, my tummy rumbling in anticipation of a hearty bowl of stone soup. It turned out that the fabled broth of my childhood wasn’t on the menu, and I momentarily was disappointed. However, the United Methodist Women served me something better than stone soup. Much better.
Perhaps you recall the “Stone Soup” story from your own childhood. It’s a fable often attributed to the Brothers Grimm. But variations of the tale have popped up in numerous countries and cultures. It’s one of those universal stories that works on multiple levels.
The version of “Stone Soup” read to me by my mother was contained in a children’s book. It described four weary soldiers making their way home from the battlefield stopped to rest in a European village. They were exhausted and dirty, and their boots were caked with mud. Most of all, they were hungry. Unfortunately, all they possessed was an empty iron pot.
Relying on their wits to feed themselves, they set up the water-filled pot over a fire in the village square.
With some drama, the men selected a smooth stone and placed it in the pot.
The people of the village, worn down by the ravages of living in a war-torn region, had withdrawn from one another. They even had begun hoarding the limited food supplies that they had squirreled away in their homes.
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Tugged by curiosity, the villagers straggled into the square to ask the soldiers what they were doing.
“We’re making stone soup!” the men replied. “It’s pretty good as it is, but it would be much better if we had a handful of turnip greens and perhaps a pinch of pepper.”
Cutting to the point of the story, the soldiers gradually wheedled an abundance of tasty ingredients for their stone soup out of the gullible villagers. When they were done, they had simmered up a nutritious, if somewhat pedestrian, stew.
On one level, the soldiers were conning the villagers out of their food – we can only assume they pulled the same stunt at the next village 18 kilometers down the road. But on another level, the story succeeds in reminding us of the importance of coming together as a community to share a symbolic meal.
During my visit to Oak Street yesterday, I conned the Methodist Women. One after another, they willingly gave up their secrets to making great soup. They all agreed that a proper soup must simmer on the stove for hours and hours.
Judy Siettmann’s secret weapon for vegetable beef soup is V8 tomato juice, which comes pre-blended with the flavors of eight vegetables (tomatoes, carrots, celery, beets, parsley, lettuce, watercress and spinach). She never adds salt to the soup until it has simmered for about four hours, preferring to taste the finished product and then add the right amount of salt.
“It takes a long time to make it really good,” she said.
When Dorothy Lindahl makes her husband Bruce’s favorite green chili, she never relies on a recipe. And he always prefers the way it tastes the day after it was made. Lindahl says the flavors blend together better with a little aging.
“I can’t eat the green chili I make for my husband, because it’s too spicy,” she said. “He thinks I make it the same way each time because of the spiciness of the peppers.”
When Penny Deihl makes vegetable beef soup for the Methodist Women’s annual Fall Fare, she always starts by asking her grocer for beef bones, which she simmers to make her stock.
Katie Fletcher said that for several years, professional chef John Luchini has lent a hand to the Methodist Women, contributing a special French roux to season and thicken the soup.
What many people don’t realize about the Methodist Women’s Fall Fare is that 10 or 12 members all make a pot of their own version of vegetable beef soup at home and bring it to the church the day before the event. There are only two forbidden ingredients: mushrooms and barley. I wonder what that’s about?
All of the different soups are commingled to make one single community soup. In fact, great care is taken to blend all of them together evenly. The resulting sum is greater than the parts.
“My own soup doesn’t compare to this soup,” Fletcher said.
Her comment made me think that maybe the Methodist Women are making stone soup after all.
The Fall Fare raises funds for organizations that aid women and children. The raffle of a quilt supports an organization in Steamboat, and the soup luncheon and bake sale support several organizations outside the city.
Friday’s luncheon brought together members of the community beyond the United Methodist congregation to partake in a meal that was delicious, but also held symbolic value.
The soup was made better by the hands of many chefs.
Clearly, one doesn’t need a recipe to make stone soup. All it takes is friends who make up a community.
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