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Boil stones in butter, and you may sip the broth. (Fuller 1732)
‘Give me a piece of paper’ (said the traveler) ‘and I’ll write it down for you,’ which he did as follows:—A receipt to-make Stone Soup. ‘ Take a large stone, put it into a sufficient quantity of boiling water; properly season it with pepper and salt; add three or four pounds of good beef, a handful of pot-herbs, some onions, a cabbage, and three or four carrots. When the soup is made the stone may be thrown away.’ Published in The American magazine of wit, 1808
The Stone Soup story revolves around a clever man with a charismatic personality who can get people to help him when their first instinct is not to. This is the aspect of the story that folklorists have focused on. Folklorists place the Stone Soup story within the “clever man” category of the Aarne-Thompson-Uther folklore classification system that they use to organize the entire folkloric tradition. Stone Soup is an Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1548 folktale.
Where does the original Stone Soup story come from? Is it a genuine folk tale in the sense that it had a long life in an oral tradition before being published in print? Or is it a creation of authors writing for hire? Or a bit of both? I think it is probably a bit of both. The Stone Soup story does not appear in any of the major eighteenth- or nineteenth-century collections of folk tales. It wasn’t published by Charles Perrault or the Grimm brothers. The first version I have found, that of Madame de Noyer (1720), is the work of an internationally renowned writer. We will never know who “told her” the story, or whether she read it in a book that has not been identified, or whether she made the whole thing up! All of the early versions I have come across are already polished tales. None make the claim that they were collected from a peasant. If a strong oral tradition for the Stone Soup story existed in the 18th and 19th centuries it is probable that also referenced the fairly substantial body of published stories.
Madame de Noyer, France 1720
The first telling of the Stone Soup story that I have been able to locate is by a French woman, Madame de Noyer (1663–1719), a female journalist, a woman of letters and a dynamic personality who lived what can only be described as an interesting life. She seems to have been a woman who burned the candle at both ends. She lived in exile from France for the last part of her life, dying in Holland. Voltaire visited her in exile. Madame de Noyer’s version of the Stone Soup story, “Soupe au Caillou” (Madame du Noyer (1720), was published one year after she died, in a revised and expanded edition of collected letters that had been published a few years earlier. Madame de Noyer’s fame was so great that in French her version of the story is the most common version through the end of the nineteenth-century. You will find it in books that attribute it to other authors, but they rarely make the changes to her telling that are required to really claim authorship.
Madame de Noyer begins her tale, as so many good storytellers do, with an element of mystery:
“On me contoit l’autre jour que …”
“Someone told me the other day that . . .”
Her version of the story is set in Normandy, in northern France. Two Jesuits come to a farmhouse, but only the children are home. The Jesuits, who are hungry, convince the children that they are not begging for food, but in fact they are self-sufficient as they have a stone that makes soup. They tell the children that all they actually need is fire, a pot, and some water, and that their stone will do the rest. They remark that this is “curieux” and from that point the game is on. A fire is got ready, a pot put over, water is added, their stone is dropped in, and then, when the water is hot, this and that is asked for until, finally, a truly fabulous soup has been made. It is a story that always has a happy ending. Everyone always seems to have a good time making the soup, and the soup itself is always loved. In many versions the tramp (and it usually is a tramp) is asked for the recipe. In many other versions, like that of Madame de Noyer, all the neighbors and even all the other villagers are brought into the story. They attest to what a fabulous soup was made by a stone.
Of course, nobody thinks that a stone can make soup.
Nobody is tricked into feeding the stranger.
The beggar is personable and is understood to be saying, “I’ll provide you some great entertainment in exchange for a meal.” As the banter surrounding the cooking was entertaining and by any standards the soup terrific, the making of stone soup always ends with smiles all around.
One characteristic of folktales is that they are contextualized by each teller. This is something the authors of the early Stone Soup stories clearly did. For example, the second version of the story was written by Phillipe Barbe (1723–1792) in his work Fables et contes philosophiques. He cites Madame de Noyer as the source but completely changes the scale of the story from a prose story that runs for a few book pages to that of a short fable written in verse, similar in spirit to those written by his contemporary, La Fontaine. Barbe’s “Soup au Caillou” is fantastic. It features a tramp who is incredibly dynamic. Barbe’s epiphany is that the story isn’t really about soup at all. It is about character, or as he put is d’esprit–spirit. Here is the moral as he wrote it some 250 years ago.
“Dan mille occasions, pur se tirer d’affaire,
Un peu d’espirt est nécessaire.”
“On thousands of occasions, to get oneself out of a problem,
A little spirit is necessary.”
In English, the Stone Soup story was first published in a British magazine, The European Magazine: and London Review, in 1806. This is the beginning of what very quickly proved to be a popular life for the story in Anglo-American literature.
In the first English telling of the story it takes place in Switzerland, near Zurich. It was written by Joseph Moser (1748 – 1819), a British writer of Swiss descent. As Moser wrote the story its plot line is very close to that of Madame de Noyer’s (which had been republished in France a few years earlier), but in the best storytelling tradition of the folktale, he repositioned and personalized the story. His contribution to the tale was to expand on Madame de Noyer’s ending to show how close the tie became between the host and the traveler, and how much the soup was appreciated as a brilliant recipe.
When it [the soup] was finished, the kind hostess, who had watched the operation with some anxiety, and from time to time longed to taste the soup, was indulged. She found it excellent. She had never before tasted any that was so good. She produced all the edibles her cottage afforded; and spreading her table, she, with the Traveller, made a hearty meal, of which the stone soup formed the principal part.
[Upon taking his leave, in recompense for her kindness to him the traveller gives her the stone, which she had carefully washed, and the story proceeds.]
The poor woman could hardly set any bounds on her gratitude; and she and the Traveller parted highly satisfied with each other.
Proud of this discovery, she, in general terms, mentioned it to her neighbors. By this means the recipe was promulgated; and it was in the course of many experiments at length found, that other pebbles would make as good soup as that in her possession. The viand now became fashionable through the Canton, and was indeed so generally approved, as to find its way to most of the peasants’ tables, where stone stoup used frequently be served as the first dish. (Moser 1806 p.270)
Here is the amazing thing. The Stone Soup story quickly jumped the Atlantic to be published in the young United States where its second publication in English appeared in 1808 in a book whose title says it all: The American Magazine of Wit: A Collection of Anecdotes, Stories, and Narratives, Humorous, Marvellous, Witty, Queer, Remarkable, and Interesting, Partly Selected and Partly Original.
The author, who went by the name of The Judge of Conviviality, states that some of the stories were acquired from others and some he wrote himself. Compared to Moser’s version, the character of the farmer’s wife has grown uglier and the ingredients have been shifted to a much richer America (lamb neck is included). No saurkraut! Instead, some colorful early Americanisms, as you will see. But this version does have an overlapping ingredient besides the stone: toast. My sense is that Moser’s version is re-imagined for an American audience by The Judge, a brilliant storyteller. The American countryside was much richer in 1808 than the European countryside. There are no peasants. The American tramp comes up against a farmer with multiple servants. They could give him a wonderful soup if they wanted without concern for tomorrow—and that, through his cleverness and charm, is what he draws them into doing.
TWO travelers, ready to die with hunger and thirst, came to a churlish farmer’s, begging some little matter to satisfy their stomachs. The mistress of the house, some servants, and children only were at home. ‘ Good people,’ said the dame, (who was as churlish as her husband) ‘ it is six miles to the next town, where you may get every thing you want, and we have neither bread nor victuals in the house.’ Said one of the travelers, ‘ As for your bread and victuals, we want neither; can you only oblige us with a tolerably large flint stone?’ ‘What for ?’ ‘ To make us some soup.’ ‘ Oh! if that be all,’ said the ill-natured Jezebel, ‘there are flints enough in the yard, but who the deuce told you that soup was made out of stones?’ ‘ If you will have patience,’ said the traveller, ‘ and only assist us with a little water, you shall see.’ ‘ How much water do you want?’ ‘About a gallon.’ The maid was immediately ordered to put it on the fire. The traveller then went into the yard, and having, with great seeming circumspection, picked up a stone, washed it as clean as possible, and as soon as the water boiled, soused it into the pot. After it had lain about a quarter of an hour, he gets a spoon, and tasting it, calls the landlady: ‘ Here, madam, only take a drop, has it not a most excellent flavor?’ ‘A flavor!’ cries she, ‘ the water is just as it was before.’ The other traveler now put in his word; ‘ you have forgot to put in the pot-herbs.’ ‘ Faith, so I did,’ cries his comrade, ‘ I thought it wanted something.’ ‘ Prythee, good dame, let us have a few pot-herbs out of the garden,’ and (as the maid was going for them) bring also, added he, a cabbage, some onions, and two or three carrots; I know I never failed of making soup out of a stone in my life.’ ‘’I’ll be shot,’ says the farmer’s wife, if you’ll make it now.’ ‘You shall see.’
‘Come let me have a little salt and pepper.’ He now seasoned the water, and after the garden stuff had boiled some time, he tasted the soup again, handing the spoon a second time to the farmer’s wife. ‘How is it at present?’ ‘Why,’ said she, ‘it is something better; but you’ll never make soup of it’ ‘Faith!’ says he, smacking his lips, I think it is excellent already: have you ever a bit of beef in the house?’ ‘ I don’t know but there is,’ said she, ‘about two or three pounds of a neck.’ ‘Nothing better—let me have it directly, with half a dozen burnt crusts of bread.’ These ingredients were allowed him like the rest. After a proper time be declared the soup was ready, and calling for a dish, poured it out, the stone appearing in the middle: Every one tasted, and declared it was excellent. ‘ Heaven bless you!’ cried the farmer’s wife, ‘let me have a receipt — my good man will be so pleased.’
‘Give me a piece of paper’ (said the traveler) ‘and I’ll write it down for you,’ which he did as follows:—A receipt to-make Stone Soup. ‘ Take a large stone, put it into a sufficient quantity of boiling water; properly season it with pepper and salt; add three or four pounds of good beef, a handful of pot-herbs, some onions, a cabbage, and three or four carrots. When the soup is made the stone may be thrown away.’
It looks as if the American version crossed back to Europe where it was reworked by another pseudonymous author into an “Irish” tale that was published in London in 1812. I cite the full title because it offers a sense of how the Stone Soup story was placed in its early years. It was not a children’s tale. It was folded into a genre of wit that can now seem a bit odd. The “Gloomy Times” will have referred to the Napoleonic War. The book was published in the ninth year of what would end up being a twelve-year war.
Irish wit, or Post-Chaise Companion: Being an ECCENTRIC MISCELLANY of HIBERIAN WIT, FUN, AND HUMOUR, Much the greater part NEVER BEFORE IN PRINT, With a Selection of such as may have appeared; Calculated for the Meridian of the UNITED KINGDOMS; and consisting of bon-mots, repartees, smart puns, high jokes, queer hoaxes, humorous anecdotes, laughing bulls, devilish good things, And various other Articles of INTELLECTUAL CONFECTIONARY, Adapted to the risible Muscles, and designed to dispel Care, PURGE MELANCHOLY, CURE THE SPLEEN, and Raise the drooping Spirits in these Gloomy Times.
Momus Broadgrin brought the story back to Europe, sort of. He made the tramps “Irish travelers” which means Gypsies. But the basic story remained true to type and the recipe is copied without a change from the version published in The American Magazine of Wit.
Take a large stone, put it into a sufficient quantity of water; properly season it with pepper and salt; add three or four pounds of good beef, a handful of pot-herbs, some onions, a cabbage, and three or four carrots; when the soup is made, the stone may be thrown away. (Broadgrin 1812 p. 233)
The Stone Soup story seems to have quickly become part of English literary culture and stayed there throughout the nineteenth century. After this first flurry of stories being printed, references to stone soup begin showing in literature as references—which means authors could assume that everyone knew the story. References were sometimes even allegorical. As an example, after retelling the story in The Circular, an 1868 publication of the utopian American Oneida community, the following moral is drawn from the story.
We think of this story when we hear Associationists vaunting the all-redeeming power of their system, and yet asking for good men to begin with. If they can find means to put the salt of brotherly love, the flour of industrious and enterprising habits, and the meal-bones of wealth and good morals into their pot, we have no doubt that their “stone soup” will be very good. (Community and Community 1868)
The great breakthrough for the Stone Soup story for today’s culture came with the fantastically popular retelling by Marcia Brown (1918-2015), the American children’s book author. Her 1947 retelling with soldiers rather than tramps has become the standard version, although historically it was a story about tramps, not soldiers. Her book has captured the imagination of generations and is the most likely source for the incredible popularity of stone soup as an organizing principle for every imaginable kind of activity.
A search with the Google search engine brings up 386,000 web pages with the term. There is a stone soup comic strip, a “Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup” which is “an open-source single-player, role-playing rogue like game…., a Stone Soup Theater, a cafe, an inn, food and nutrition magazine, design company, an intentional community in Chicago, a circus, a beer, a set of lesson plans, on and on and on.
If you have any ideas about why the Stone Soup story resonates so strongly today; something to add to its history; insights from a different language; or maybe have your own retelling—in the spirit of stone soup recipe itself, please help us enrich the stone soup story.
As you look further around the internet for information about the Stone Soup folktale you will come across a cited reference from the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Brewer 1900), written by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, and published in England in 1900 that a synonym for Stone Soup is St. Bernard’s Soup. Brewster cites no references. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) was associated with the Cistercian monasteries. To this day, they are known for simple living and very plain soups. However, I have been unable to substantiate Brewer’s association of stone soup with St. Bernard. There does seem to have been the idea in the late nineteenth century that St. Bernard was associated with a stone soup as in addition to Brewer’s reference there is this query by a scholar in 1892 for more information on the subject:
Will any reader of ‘ N. & Q.’ [A journal called Notes and Queries] kindly give me information with respect to the legend of St. Bernard’s soup? The frugal saint was supposed to make his soup with a pebble, adding, of course, various other ingredients. What is the origin of the legend, and where is it to be found? There is a story by A. Karr, ‘La Soupe an Caillou,’ but I do not think that he makes any mention of St. Bernard. R. W. H. (H. 1892 p. 88)
Of course, the man who posted the query and Brewer both lived in London at the same time so this may, itself, be a circular reference! I have found nothing more about this tradition although there are plenty of Stone Soup days at Catholic institutions associated with St. Bernard. The story “La Soupe an Caillou” referenced in the scholar’s query is the story from 1767 written by Prézel. R. W. H, the author of the query, wrongly attributes it to a French author, A. Karr, who republished the story without attribution. If any of you reading this know something about stories associated with St. Bernard and his stone soup, please write to me with what you know or have found.
Brewer, Ebanezer Cobham. 1900. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: Giving the Derivation, Source, Or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words that Have a Tale to Tell. London: Cassell & Company.
Broadgrin, Momus. 1812. The Spirit of Irish Wit; or Post Chaise Companion; being an eccentric miscellany of Hibernian wit, etc: London.
Community, Oneida, and Wallingford Community. 1868. Oneida circular. Vol. 5 no 20. Oneida Community: Oneida and Wallingford Community.
Dover, A Judge of the Convivial Court of. 1808. The American magazine of wit. New York,: Printed by H. C. Southwick.
Du Noyer, A.M.P. 1720. Lettres historiques et galantes de deux dames de condition dont l’une étoit à Paris et l’autre en province: P. Brunel.
Fuller, Thomas. 1732. Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British: B. Barker, A. Bettesworth and C. Hitch.
H., R. W. 1892. Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers Etc, January–June, 88.
Moser, Joseph. 1806. The Recipe for Stone Soup. The European Magazine, and London Review.
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