Stone Soup

pet rock

Stone Soup is an old folk story in which hungry strangers trick the local people of a town to share their food: a good confidence trick that benefits the group from combining their individual resources. The story is usually told as a lesson in cooperation, especially amid scarcity. In varying traditions, the stone has been replaced with other common inedible objects, and therefore the fable is also known as button soup, wood soup, nail soup, and axe soup. In the story, some hungry travellers come to a village carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with them.

The travellers go to a stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travellers answer that they are making ‘stone soup,’ which tastes wonderful, but could use a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor. The villager does not mind parting with a few carrots to help them out, so that gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travellers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all.

In the Portuguese tradition, the traveller is a monk and the story takes place around Almeirim, Portugal. Many restaurants in Almeirim serve stone soup, or ‘sopa de pedra.’ Almeirim is considered the capital of stone soup. In the French and Hungarian versions of the tale, the travellers are soldiers: three returning home from the Napoleonic Wars play the role in the former, and a single, starving one, who encounters several hardships on his journey back to his homeland, is depicted in the latter. The story is most commonly known as ‘nail soup’ in Scandinavian and Northern European countries. In these versions, the main character is typically a tramp looking for food and lodgings, who convinces an old woman that he will make nail soup for the both of them if she would just add a few ingredients for the garnish. In Eastern Europe the variation of the story (having more in common with the Northern European rendition) is called ‘axe soup,’ with an axe being the catalyst. In Russian tradition a soldier eats axe kasha.

General George S. Patton, Jr. referred to the ‘rock soup method’ of acquiring resources for attacks in the face of official disapproval by his superiors for offensive operations. In the military context, he sent units forward ostensibly on reconnaissance missions, to later reinforce them when resistance was met and eventually turned small scale probes into all out attacks; he notably did this during the Battle of Sicily in the advance on Palermo and again in the campaign in northwest Europe, notably near Metz when his 3rd US Army was officially halted during Operation Market Garden.

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