When K. arrived here from Ethiopia at 8 years old, I felt she was more than old enough to help cook. (The fact that we had quite a few bumpy months of adjusting to American food is a separate story!) Our first Christmas together, I gave her her own kitchen knife, a short, sharp orange blade with an orange scabbard. Who wouldn’t want to cut vegetables with that?! Sharp knives are the safest knives, and I never felt nervous about letting her cut potatoes or carrots or apples. We are a vegetarian family, so vegetables are the bulk of what we cut. I taught her how to use the peeler and the grater, and the first time she made the dinner salad on her own she was as proud as could be.
In the third grade in Waldorf education, children cook in school and spend a week on a farm, milking cows, harvesting vegetables, pressing cider, baking bread, cooking soup. At this age children begin to recognize that they won’t always live in the family nest; learning to cook assures them that they will be able to feed themselves. K. and I started a vegetarian cooking club in third grade, and we had many wonderful meals cooked entirely by the kids. Now in 6 th grade, K. and her friends often cook weekend lunches on their own. I generally keep out of the way, knowing that the best cooks learn by experimenting for themselves.
An ideal story to tell in the kitchen is Stone Soup, a story so well known it hardly seems necessary to retell it. But on the chance that there are readers who don’t know it, here it is. This story, as with so many traditional tales, has many variations in the details; each teller adds her own seasoning, as I have.
A war had ended after many years, and a soldier who had served for a long time was finally making his way home. He spent all his severance pay before he got there, however, and had many hungry days of walking still ahead of him.
One evening he arrived at a village and knocked at a door. “May I ask for dinner? I served the king for many years, and now I have nothing.”
The old woman who answered the door had grown mistrustful of soldiers, and she shook her head and shut the door. This was the same response at the next door, and the next, and the soldier despaired of filling his belly that night. Years of keeping himself alive during wartime had made him a quick thinker, however, and he went back to the first door. “Ma’am, may I borrow a cooking pot? I plan to make a fire just there on the green, and cook some soup, and then I will return the pot to you. I promise, on the honor of the king’s regiment.”
She didn’t like it, but she grudgingly agreed. She handed him her second-best cooking pot, and then watched from the window.
The soldier made a fire, filled the pot from the town pump, and set it over the flames. Then he searched along the roadside, picking up one stone, then another, picking and choosing until he seemed to find one stone he liked the best. Then he went back to his fire and put the stone in the pot. The woman couldn’t believe her eyes, and of course she thought his wits were wandering. At last her curiosity pushed her out the door.
“Making stone soup,” the soldier replied, stirring the water with a stick. He breathed in the steam. “Mm, this is going to be good, I know it.”
The woman sniffed the steam. “It is?”
“Oh yes, this is an excellent stone, one of the best. Of course, onion brings out the flavor even more.” He glanced at her. “Do you happen to have an onion? It doesn’t have to be a big one.”
“Oh, plenty,” the woman replied without thinking. She immediately regretted her words, but remembering Sunday sermons, she went back to her house and returned with a small onion. In no time, the soup was, indeed, smelling nice.
More people were watching this from their windows, and before long another villager came out, curious about this activity. “Stone soup,” the first woman said while the soldier stirred. “See the stone? This soldier learned some fine skills in the army.”
“A carrot adds sweetness, you know,” the soldier added. He looked at the second villager. “It doesn’t need a carrot, but it’s a nice addition. Do you have any carrots?”
Intrigued, the second villager agreed to add some carrots to the soup. Before long there were a dozen cooks around the pot, each bringing something small to add – a potato, a handful of oats, a chicken neck, some herbs. The aroma from the pot was mouth-watering, and the villagers were amazed that a stone could produce such fine-smelling soup. They were chatting and laughing among themselves, looking forward to the fine meal they all would share. At last the soldier pronounced the soup ready. Bowls and cups and spoons were quickly passed around, and a fresh loaf of bread torn into chunks. The soldier had two bowls of fine stone soup, and when the pot was wiped clean with bread, everyone agreed that it was the best soup they’d ever had – and made from a stone, of all things!