Picture yourself somewhere in Eastern Europe…
It’s just after the Crimean war and there are soldiers ravaging the countryside.
Our scene opens with three soldiers crossing a river at daybreak. When they reach the other side, one of them tells the other two to pick up a smooth round stone and put it in their pocket, which they do. As the day wears on, the soldiers approach a village. The leader tells the other two that if they follow his direction, they will all have a feast tonight. After some bickering, they agree.
As they walk into town, windows and doors are closed, children are schussed inside. It is obvious that the soldiers are not welcome. They enter a butcher shop and ask where to find the mayor.
“Why do you want to see the mayor?”, the butcher demands angrily, brandishing a very large, very sharp meat cleaver.
“Because we want to assure him and all the townsfolk that we come in peace with a great gift for the village.” said the leader of the trio.
Somewhat taken aback, the butcher noticeably mellows.
“Oh. Well, in that case, I’ll take you to him, just off the town square.”
Taking off his apron; washing and sheathing his cleaver, the butcher puts on his cap and coat and slings the sheathed cleaver over his shoulder. The soldiers take this as a clear sign that the butcher believes in the adage “trust but verify.”
Once at the mayors office, the leader of the trio explains that in their travels they have encountered many wonderful things, one of the most valuable is the gift that they bring to the village: The recipe for making Stone Soup.
“Stone Soup?” snorts the mayor. “That sounds terrible.”
“Nay, my lord mayor” the soldier interrupts. “If you will get the biggest cauldron in the village, place it right in the middle of town square – so everyone can see us at work. Fill it with water and light a fire under it; by night fall, the entire village will have a rich feast, all started with just these three stones.”
The soldiers pull the three stones from their pockets and hold them out to show them to the mayor. When the mayor reaches out to take one, they draw them back quickly and the leader speaks:
“These stones are precious, they hold the secret to feeding an entire village! And they are very powerful, not to be trifled with. So you can understand why we do not let someone we just met touch them, even someone as august a personage as yourself, lord mayor.
“Let us reach the heart of the matter sir. In exchange for treating the entire village to a feast tonight, all we ask is a safe place to sleep and some bread and water for our journey when we leave tomorrow. Can you grant this?”
“If these stones are as powerful as you say, I’m sure we can find you a room. If this is some sort of trick, by nightfall you will rue the day you darkened our fair village with your presence.”
“Fair enough.” said the soldier. The sun is already high in the sky and Stone Soup takes many hours to prepare. If we are to keep our end of the bargain, let us begin at once!”
In a blink, the fishmonger’s cauldron is wheeled into the town square, filled with water and a fire is roaring underneath. The three soldiers mutter something that sounds vaguely Yiddish and drop the stones into the water.
To the crew and the smattering of on-lookers the leader speaks:
“We have traveled far, nearly all night, so if you will permit us to nap for a time, undisturbed, we will refresh ourselves while the water begins to boil.”
The trio leans against the low wall of the town well and are soon fast asleep.
As the days warms and ordinary commerce brings people to the square, word soon spreads of the three soldiers and the promise of a feast for the whole village with a magic recipe for Stone Soup.
After a short while, the leader rises, tastes the soup and says to the onlookers:
“I know that the war has devastated everyone. That is why we’ve brought the gift of Stone Soup to the village. As good as it is going to be, it would be ever so much better with a head of cabbage, even an older one, because the stones will improve whatever is put in the pot.
“If you haven’t got one, that’s quite all right, I perfectly understand. If you have got one that you’ve be trying to decide whether to keep or throw away, that would be perfect.”
At this several children scurry away and two come back with cabbages. The soldier repeats the appeal with carrots, greens, turnips, and so forth, each time emphasizing that it’s perfectly fine if they don’t have any and not to be sorry or concerned. Soon the villagers themselves begin to suggest ingredients:
barleycorn, herbs and spices and the butcher himself offers a rabbit!
The two other soldiers can barely contain their excitement, they have watched their companion enter a village as a complete unknown and in the span of a few hours become the talk of the town. As we’ve heard so often, when it rains it pours. They are about to receive the crowning achievement. In late afternoon, the oldest babushka in the village appears with her copper ladle and the townsfolk are astonished!
“I’ve never seen Grandmother bring her copper ladle to something that wasn’t a major church feastday!” says one young girl.
There is complete silence as the babushka stirs the rich, hearty soup and takes a ladleful, which she pours into four cups: one for each soldier and one for herself. She motions for them to sample first and they do, faces brightening at the delicious result, which the combined community effort has created.
The true seat of power in the little village takes a deep drought from her cup and wiggles her nose like a rabbit, analyzing every scent, every nuance with the subtleties of discriminating taste that only decades of experience can bring. She raises four fingers and the now completely packed town square lets out a collective gasp!
“I only got a three for my 25th anniversary dinner!” remarks one matron.
Having never said a word during the entire exercise, the babushka rinses her copper ladle, the tacit symbol of her authority, in a bucket nearby and walks back to her hut.
The mayor walks to the cauldron and speaks:
“My good people, these strangers have kept their word, let us prepare the town square for a feast!”
As nightfall sets in, torches are lit, tables are set with bread, dressings, wine, mead, ale and water for the children. There is music and dancing and a festival atmosphere equal to any that the entire townsfolk can remember. The three soldiers sleep in the mayor’s guesthouse, reserved for foreign dignitaries who come because of the village’s location as the gateway to the mountain pass of a key trade route.
The next morning the soldiers are given a cart because there is no way humanly possible they could carry all the gifts they have received. Gathered in the town square the people cry out:
“Tell us the secret of Stone Soup!”
The smaller of the two other soldiers takes off his cap and says:
“The secret is that there is no secret. You wonderful people are the magic in the recipe of Stone Soup. All we did was get you to open up. First open your minds to the idea of a feast, then open your hearts to be willing to give for the good of the whole community when it meant a personal sacrifice, then to open your pantries and larders to actually carry out your good intentions with good works.
It is we three who must thank you because we are witnesses to excellence. The stones themselves, we give them to you freely⃮”
The three soldiers each give their stone to one of the town’s lovely maidens, at which the three young women blush and giggle with delight!
“Keep these stones as mementos because they have no magic, the magic is inside each of your hearts and minds. When you give of yourself, for your sports club, your civic organizations, your Christmas tree farm we passed on the way into the village, your passion, focus and knowledge animates whatever you touch, just like you created the best stew the village has tasted out of ordinary rocks. It is your spirit of service that animates you to deliver excellence.”
The second soldier speaks:
“I was scared yesterday by the cold reception we got entering the village. I understood it, with all the soldiers in the countryside giving us a bad name. I could scarcely have imagined how good this feels, here, now, today, to be a part of creating such memories. This has given me lessons for a lifetime and I want to share a few of them here:
- Believe in your neighbors.
- Having said that, like the butcher, trust and verify.
- Ignore idle talk. Follow those who do the work.
- When you’re planning and doing the work, make sure it’s the work that needs to be done, rather than something you’re doing for vainglory.
- Lastly, enjoy working hard and make sure that you enjoy the rewards of community.
In last night’s feast, yes we fostered it, yet it was our effort shared, from our individual treasures. No government henchmen came to take, we freely gave to each other. We all prospered by freely trading our time, talent and treasure with each other on terms that we set, not that were set for us.”
And so the soldiers went on their way, having created memories for a lifetime of learning, all from having shared the recipe for soup from a stone.