I’m going back a long way now, to a holiday we had when my children were young. We’d been up on the Sunshine Coast, enjoying a holiday in the early Spring. The only way to afford a holiday when you have four children is to find an inexpensive apartment. Definitely not a hotel!
This facility had a swimming pool, but it was far too cold to swim. The apartment had a kitchen which we’d put to good use, cooking our meals rather than eating out every night with four kids.
The day before our departure we were packing and getting some washing done. But the family still needed to be fed, preferably on whatever we had left. The fridge was fairly bare by this stage.
“Let’s make stone soup!” I announced to the girls. They already knew the story, thanks to Jim Henson’s “Storyteller” series. But we were going to do our own version of the traditional folk tale, which goes back hundreds of years through many cultures.
Beside the swimming pool was a rockery of grey river pebbles, some streaked with marble. Miss Ten grabbed one where the layer of marble looked like a ring. “Let’s use this one! It looks magical!”
Back in the kitchen I began the story.
A tramp was looking for shelter on a frosty night. He was tired, hungry and cold but the only house he could try belonged to an old miser. There were signs on the property saying, “Get out! No freeloaders here!”
The tramp read the notices, shrugged, and knocked on the door.
The miser opened the door. “Well?”
“You have a fine house, sire,” said the tramp. “It is going to be a cold night. Could I please sleep indoors in your house? Just a quiet corner out of the wind and storm.”
The miser was furious. “Can’t you read?” he shouted. “No freeloaders!” and went to slam the door.
The tramp stuck his foot in the door.
“Oh, I quite agree! You can’t be too careful! But I’m not a freeloader. In exchange for your hospitality, I will cook you a delicious soup.”
“What with?” the miser asked. “All I see is you, skin, bone and rags.”
“Ah, but sire, I have a magic stone. With that, I can make soup. All I need is a pot of water to put over the fire.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a river pebble, grey with a circle of marble on it.
“Just like mine?” asked Miss Ten.
“Just like yours,” I told her.
The miser was curious. And there was the prospect of a free dinner. “Very well, then. But mind you sleep in the furthest corner. I don’t want wear and tear on the rug. My dog sleeps there.”
With the cottage door closed behind him, the tramp rubbed his cold hands together to try to bring back some feeling.
“Well? Where’s this soup you promised me?” asked the miser.
“I’ll need — a fire!” The tramp rushed over to the fireplace to warm his hands a little more. “And a pot to put the soup in. And some water. That’s all.”
The miser fetched a small cauldron and filled it with water from the trough outside. “Here!” he handed it over. “Do your magic! Let’s see this miracle soup! I’m betting the only miracle will be why I didn’t slam the door on your face!”
“Have faith,” replied the tramp. He dropped the stone into the pot.
“Well?” the miser asked. “You’ve got your stone, and your water.”
“It takes time,” the tramp told him. “Do you have an old bone? Just something you would have thrown away anyway. We can stir it with that.” The tramp sipped at the contents of the cauldron. “Hmm, needs seasoning. Do you have any salt?”
In the kitchen in the holiday apartment, Miss Ten handed me a spoon. “I think there’s some sachets of salt left over from a takeaway dinner. Here!”
“Let’s look in the fridge. Are there any old bones which we might throw away?” I already knew there were bones left over from a barbecued chicken.
Miss Ten produced the remnants of the chicken. I noted that the stuffing was still there. None of the kids would touch chicken stuffing. We’d picked the bones almost clean. It went into the pot, along with the contents of two salt sachets.
In the miser’s hut in the forest, the pot had been stirred with an old ham bone that still had some meat on it, and some salt had been added. It was coming up to heat and the tramp was enjoying the warmth of the fire. But he would have to feed the miser well if he was to stay warm this night.
The miser hovered. “Is it nearly ready?”
“Just a little longer. Do you have any old, wrinkled root vegetables which you won’t eat? Just stuff for the rubbish heap. It will give the soup a bit of body. Some potatoes, perhaps. Or old, stale bread.”
The miser scurried around and found a wrinkled onion, some potatoes and some skinny root vegetables. The tramp put them into the pot. “It won’t be long now.”
Back in the apartment kitchen, Miss Ten looked in the fridge. “Here are some carrots!”
“We need those carrots,” I told her. “I’m going to peel them and we can have carrot sticks to nibble in the car while we drive to the park this afternoon. But here’s an onion. And let me peel those carrots while we wait for the soup.”
I decided I would use the onion for dinner, but I needed some onion in the soup too. So I peeled the onion, taking an extra layer. The onion peel went into the soup, along with the carrot peel. We tasted our soup, Miss Ten and I. She peered into the pot. “I can’t see the stone, Mummy. Is it gone?”
“No, the stone is just hiding behind the bones and the scraps. We’ll see it at the end.”
The tramp was now warm as toast and had been tasting the soup all through. It had started with a pot of water, and his magic stone. But he had added salt, some root vegetables, some old bones and other bits of rubbish that the miser would not have bothered to eat and now the soup was thick, rich and meaty from the old bones. What the miser would have thrown away would have fed a poor family for a week.
At last the tramp was satisfied. “It’s ready! And a finer soup you’ll never have had!”
The miser hurried over with a bowl and a spoon. He saw the sad look on the tramps face, and reluctantly produced another bowl and spoon for the tramp. Together they sat and enjoyed the soup. The miser exclaimed at how tasty it was, how it warmed him and what a marvel it all was. “Please, good sir,” the miser told the tramp, “I will give you a full bag of gold. Let me buy this marvellous stone from you. It is a wonder!”
The tramp smiled. All he had wanted was shelter from the storm. Now he was warm from the fire, had eaten well of the soup which had been concocted with unwanted food from the miser’s larder, and now he was offering money. But the tramp pretended to be reluctant. “Let me think on it overnight. I have been glad of this stone in my wanderings on the road. I will be sad to part with it.”
The miser was now very eager to please his guest. “You take my bed tonight. I will sleep on the mat with my old dog. Maybe after a good night’s sleep you will think more kindly on my offer.”
In our kitchen, Miss Ten tasted our soup. I was very happy with it, and glad I’d been able to produce it with the last discards of our holiday larder. The seasoning in the unwanted stuffing had added flavour and some thickening. Miss Ten exclaimed at the marvel of producing a tasty soup with just a stone, and old scraps from the fridge. But she pushed it aside and took a carrot stick instead.
So what happened next morning, Mummy?” asked Miss Ten, munching on a carrot stick.
I told her the rest of the story as I poured the soup into a jug and picked out the scraps of onion, carrot and chicken bone to put in the bin. Miss Ten reached for the stone and washed it under the tap. “I want to keep this,” she announced, and put it in her holiday treasures box.
Back in the cottage, the tramp spent a very comfortable night in a warm feather bed, in a hut with a burning fire. But when he woke, he knew he needed to get on his way. But the miser was reluctant to see him leave.
“Please, good sir,” the miser begged. “Will you sell me your stone? Perhaps two bags of gold?”
With a great show of reluctance, the miser reached into his pocket for his stone. “Very well,” he sighed. Your gold will help me feed myself for a while, at least.” He handed over the stone as the miser eagerly pushed the gold into the tramp’s hands. And then the tramp found himself almost hurried out of the door as the miser took the little pot to the water trough to fill it up.
As he left, the tramp advised, “You will always be able to make soup with the stone, with just water. But it always improves the flavour if you add a few other things too.”
The miser was back in the cottage, door closed on the world and the tramp could see the smoke spiral higher from the chimney as the fire was stoked up to boil the pot.
As he walked away through the morning snow, the tramp smiled. At the bottom of the hill he paused for a moment. He bent over the river bank and picked up a stone. He put it in his pack where it nestled next to two bags of gold. He continued on his way, still smiling.
I put the jug of soup in the fridge. That night, with the rest of the onion and a small bag of rice, I made risotto. A meal conjured from nothing.
Years passed in our home, Miss Ten kept the magic stone and made many pots of soup with it. She became a skilled cook, able to improvise. When she grew up and left home to get married, she took her magic soup stone with her.