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Stone Soup: A Cautionary Tale

February 6, 2012

One day, in the bleak, wintry dead of February, a man showed up in the village with an enormous cast iron pot. It was one of those huge jobbies from a maple sugaring scene by Grandma Moses, only more realistic; sixty, seventy gallons, easily. The man, who had huge biceps from lugging this thing around who knows where for God knows how long, set it down smack in the middle of the town square, which was actually more of an irregular trapezoid, and started to build a fire. A few people gathered nearby to watch, wondering what the hell he was doing, and whether he had a permit. He began to fill the pot with snow. Soon the fire, which had grown considerably in the span of three sentences, was roaring, then bellowing, then clearing its throat and hawking up a loogie into a nearby snowbank. The snow in the pot melted and came to a steaming, rolling boil, having passed from the solid state into liquid and finally into gas, per science. With a critical eye, the man began to survey the stones that dotted the ground around him. Hefting one in his hand and examining it closely, as though to judge its quality, he finally tossed it into the pot. He continued his search intently, discarding some stones as unworthy, lobbing others into the hot liquid.

Finally, Clem Partridge, a clichéd old New Englander who clutched a burlap sack of Yankee ingenuity in one hand and a covered bridge in the other, spoke up.

“What’re you doing there, fella?” he asked in a drawl heavily accented with thrift and cheese curds.

“I’m making soup from stones,” said the man.

“Do you have a permit?” asked the town clerk, who was hated by all for his notorious permit-pushing ways.

“Right here,” said the man, pulling from his pocket the permit the town clerk had issued to him less than fifteen minutes earlier.

A mannish woman, Ann Drogeny, of the Boston Drogenys, spoke up. “So, this rock soup. Is this the thing from the infomercial? Is it the fat-burning stuff?”

“No,” said the man. It’s stone soup. Just stones and water. Delicious. Best soup you ever had. But what would really make it great is a carrot or two.”

Abner Holt, the town’s world-renowned carrot historian, as seen on Good Morning America, stepped forward. “Just so happens I have some carrots right here.” He opened his plaid flannel jacket to reveal a lining of carrot-shaped pockets, each bearing a carrot.

“Wonderful,” said the man, selecting a few and tossing them into the pot. “Mmm … smell that carroty goodness. But you know what would really make it exceptional? Some potatoes. Thicken it up, make it nice and hearty.” Right at that moment, in an astounding coincidence, a panel truck full of hard-hatted men, just ending their shift at the town’s potato mine, drove by. Each held in his hands his day’s pay: two potatoes and a bag of weed. As stoners, they lacked the ambition to organize and strike for a decent wage, in actual currency, but several of the workers tossed their potatoes into the pot, free-throw style. One accidentally threw in his bag of weed, and, retrieving it, received third-degree burns and a bummer.

The man was delighted. “You’re very fortunate to have stones, and stoners, of such quality here in your town,” he said, barely containing his enthusiasm as the crowd began to swell. “This is going to be some delicious soup. But I could make it absolutely perfect with just a few other ingredients.” Joseph Tortelli, aka Joey Icepick, aka Joey the Canary, aka Joey Turnips, a witness-protection-program enrollee and turnip farmer who, purely coincidentally, also ran the town’s waste disposal operations, stepped forward. He dumped in a bushel basket of turnips, all the while entertaining those standing nearby with his trademark homespun wisdom, delivered in the thick Jersey accent he had somehow developed during his “boyhood” in “coastal Maine.” In a characteristic gesture of thoughtfulness, when a human finger, ring still intact, tumbled into the pot with the turnips, Joey carefully fished it out.

Others made their own contributions as the trapezoid continued to fill with people. A contingent of locovores, who made a big show of the fact that they were locovores, showed up with armloads of locally grown local GMO-free corn that had been locally planted, cultivated, grown, picked, and transported within walking distance by people who had grown up in the town and had never set foot outside its boundaries, not even to proselytize to nearby communities about the moral and ethical responsibility to buy locally. Newlyweds Denny and Carla McMaster, fresh from the altar, were convinced to make a detour past the pot as they got into their honeymoon limo, so that handfuls of rice made their way into the bubbling soup. Louise Patterson was mugged for the stalk of celery in her hand, which the mugger then expertly chopped into half-inch dices and slid into the simmering mass. The Baxter boy volunteered a leftover Brussels sprout from his Brussels sprout route. Identical twins Dina and Dana Nolan together hefted a pod with two peas in their mittened hands, carefully dividing the weight between them equally. Joan and Brent Parsley brought great handfuls of basil. Toni Basil, who happened to be passing through town en route to a 1980s nostalgia convention, threw in a large bunch of parsley, then quickly retreated into her rented Toyota, rueing her decision to wear a cheerleading costume on such a bitterly cold day.

By this time, the crowd had grown to hundreds. A battery of potters, stationed around the perimeter with their wheels turning at a blur, formed, glazed, and fired bowls at a furious pace. The town’s seventy or so silversmiths hummed with activity as they molded and hammered silver ingots into spoons, only to have to start over again when Prescott Ames, the town’s flatware historian, pointed out that they were actually making salad forks.

People lined up eagerly as the man began to ladle out the fragrant, steaming soup. Wet, hungry slurps were punctuated by murmurs of agreement that the soup was the greatest, most delectable soup they had ever tasted, soup without parallel or precedent. “If only there were some way to can it!” enthused Mr. Campbell to Mr. Progresso, whose ring finger was conspicuously absent.

Suddenly, a woman’s cry interrupted the pleasant, convivial spirit. “Ow! What the fuck?!” It was Darlene Sims, the infamously profane substitute teacher. “Fuck!” she reiterated, unnecessarily, for the pure enjoyment of it. “Fuck!” she said yet a third time, because she was also obsessive-compulsive. She spat into her hand and held out her upturned palm. In it was a broken, bloodied tooth and a small rock.

“Son of a bitch!” came another loud exclamation, piercing the chill air. Again, it was a woman, or so everyone thought at first. It actually turned out to be Chester Mifflin, a hulking bear of a man whose stature and heavy smoking habit inexplicably endowed his voice with a high-pitched, squeaky, doll-like quality. He, too, spit in his hand and held out the contents for everyone to see. “Gravel?! Are you fucking kidding me?”

Surprised, angry cries began to ripple throughout the trapezoid. “Oh, it hurts! It hurts so much!” lisped the sibilant Russ Susskind through the gap where his two front teeth used to be.

“Oh, this is great! Marvelous! And we just lost our dental plan at work!” chimed in Bess Musselman-Susskind, Russ’ caustic, sarcastic spouse, spraying tiny flecks of tooth enamel as she spoke.

“This is worse than Grape Nuts!” moaned Frank Ferebee, the town’s cereal historian, as blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth.

“I think I just swallowed a pebble!” agonized Bea Trumbull. “This can’t be good for my gallstones!”

“You won’t get away with this, soup man!” shouted George Tayback, the town’s historian of shouting. “Get him!”

The atmosphere quickly turned toxic as the townspeople advanced on the man, first pelting him with their broken teeth, then the stones they plucked from their bowls of soup, then the baseball-sized rocks that lay scattered around the pot. Stones began to rain down on the man like very hard rain, no one in their fury bothering to discriminate among igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary, between silicate or non-silicate. A group of fifth graders who had been attentive during Miss Sims’ lecture on the various forms of carbon in science class that very morning flicked their pencil leads at him. The Nolan Twins each aimed half a geode at the man’s knees. One of the locovores flung a locally bootlegged cassette from an old, locally produced “Monsters of Rock” show at the man, retrieved it, flung it at him again, and then placed it in the recycling bin. The Rolling Stones FedExed a letter disavowing any connection to the man or his soup.

The mayhem continued unabated until lawyers from the Shirley Jackson estate showed up and put an end to the whole thing. In lieu of tar and feathers, which hadn’t been seen in the town since the tar pits moved to Mexico and the feather mines had begun to yield potatoes, the man was covered in double-sided tape and sweepings from the barbershop and run out of town. When the pot had cooled, a group of men directed by Gus Talbot, the town’s kettle and cauldron historian, tipped it over. As a layer of soggy vegetables washed over the side, it became clear that the soup had been at least three-quarters stones, including the Rosetta Stone, which hadn’t even been missed yet by the British Museum. On the spot, the town clerk began to draft an ordinance declaring that henceforth all soup made within town limits had to be stone-free. Several of the locovores proposed that soup including locally sourced stones be allowed, but were quickly shouted down. A sobering silence descended over the soup-saturated, blood-spattered scene.

Someone finally spoke up. “He thought it was a metaphor,” said Ike Bailey in his capacity as the town’s literary device historian, “but clearly, it was mainly water and rocks.”


Soup photo (before alteration): Paul Bratcher Photography, via Flickr

28 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012 8:42 pm

    “One accidentally threw in his bag of weed, and, retrieving it, received third-degree burns and a bummer.”
    “A group of fifth graders who had been attentive during Miss Sims’ lecture on the various forms of carbon in science class that very morning flicked their pencil leads at him.”
    Haha this is amazing! Thanks for making me laugh 🙂

    • February 6, 2012 8:45 pm

      Thank you. For me, nothing punctuates drug humor better than a good carbon joke.

  2. February 6, 2012 10:14 pm

    This is the best thing I’ve read in weeks. Loved the Lottery reference. So few people recognize the potential for humor in that story.

    • February 7, 2012 9:09 am

      Thank you. As for “The Lottery,” I agree wholeheartedly. It’s said that Shirley Jackson actually cribbed the premise from a Three Stooges short. Surprisingly, she omitted the scene where Moe yanks a handful of hair from Larry’s head.

  3. February 7, 2012 3:54 am

    Brilliant tale, and I like the new tag associated with it

  4. February 7, 2012 7:09 am

    Great update on an old tale. Is a reality show in the works?

    • February 7, 2012 9:03 am

      Funny you should ask … MTV has already contacted me about doing a Jersey Soup pilot.

  5. sonnypi67 permalink
    February 7, 2012 7:42 am

    Stone Soup is an awesome premise for a iPhone App. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. Only it will need to include zombies. Everything is better with zombies is a general rule of thumb when creating Apps.

    • February 7, 2012 9:13 am

      Dammit. I knew I should have left in the scene where the undead show up with kidney beans and kidneys.

  6. sonnypi67 permalink
    February 7, 2012 7:43 am

    Also, zombies improve Apps…. per science.

    • February 7, 2012 9:02 am

      If I leave only one legacy, I want it to be the phrase “per science,” appended to the end of any statement by way of justification, no matter how farfetched or nonsensical. Remember: you read it here first.

  7. Siebert Tenseven permalink
    February 7, 2012 8:57 am

    Isn’t this how Google got started?

    • February 7, 2012 9:15 am

      Tell me about it. They completely stole the idea from me, except I wanted to call it Goggle.

  8. February 8, 2012 9:37 am

    That’s why I hate cooking…everyone’s a critic.

    • February 8, 2012 9:50 am

      I know, I know. That’s why I always end up just getting stone carryout for dinner half the time.

  9. February 8, 2012 7:35 pm

    I can’t even think of a quote to pull out, this whole thing is just chock-full of goodness. It almost makes up for the fact that I now have that song stuck in my head.

    Oh Mickey what a pity you don’t understand . . .

    • February 8, 2012 8:33 pm

      Thanks, but I think you probably meant to say “Mmm, mmm goodness.”

  10. February 10, 2012 2:45 pm

    Grape nuts. Perfect comparison!

  11. February 10, 2012 6:02 pm

    Man, you could cut diamonds with those things.

  12. March 13, 2012 12:18 am


  13. April 1, 2012 9:15 pm

    And this wouldn’t have happened if he’d only used a few, high-quality, large, FDA-approved stones! Oh, the humanity! … Well, he probably deserved it.

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