Soup for everyone | Moment's Notice

By Maria Montalvo | Jan 07, 2018

Do you remember the old folk tale about stone soup?

There are many versions of the story, but in most, a poor traveler arrives in a town, hoping someone will share something to eat, but when no one offers, they fill a large pot with water, put a stone in it and begin to cook “stone soup.”

Villagers stop by to inquire what they are doing and, one by one, they add a carrot here and a potato there until they have a savory stew for all to enjoy.

I thought of the parable of stone soup when talking to my uncle about his most recent foray across the island of Puerto Rico in search of people who can still use a hand after Hurricane Maria.

In one little town in the mountains, barely accessible across almost impassable roadways, his voice warmed as he talked about stopping in the plaza, the center of all life and activity, and seeing and feeling happiness and optimism.

In the plaza, people milled about, sharing stories and preparing for the holidays, despite their circumstances, and in the middle of it all, he said he saw the most wonderful thing.

Several townspeople were tending to a huge pot, at least 8 feet in diameter. Inside, a traditional Puerto Rican dish, asopao, simmered. Asopao is like a stew or a gumbo, a cross between a soup and paella, which has rice, meat, vegetables, and broth (and is one of the most soul-sustaining dishes I have ever had).

The caldron at the center of this tiny town was so large they had to use folding closet doors to cover it. I could hear the smile come to my uncle remembered the moment when he realized that the whole town was going to gather for a meal, created together, to celebrate Christmas.

This story was like so many others he has gathered as he visits one little town after another in the mountains of the island, where very little FEMA or other support has reached. In many places, even in urban areas, there is still no power, no reliably safe drinking water, and many houses have no roofs.

The stunning beauty of the blue seas of the Caribbean clash with the blue seas of tarps on house roofs. (Imagine your house with the roof ripped off, several of the walls half-standing, and all you have is a blue tarp strapped over your bedroom to keep out the elements.)

In his strong, kind tone, my uncle told of a young family left homeless after their new house outside of San Juan was destroyed, leaving them and their two young daughters living in their car for last 107 days.

Another couple could not get to a functional hospital for mom to receive cancer treatment, and yet gave away money provided to her because she said her neighbor needed it more. A large, extended family struggled for living space for all after two of their homes were flattened.

My uncle marveled as he talked about coming across a man who was fixing a house for a local family without any compensation. When asked why he was there, the man said, “For those of us given our lives after the hurricane, we know that is what is important. These things around us can be rebuilt.”

(The actual death toll in Puerto Rico is projected to be more than 1,200, according to a recent report by the New York Times.)

People are banding together to directly assist those not reached by the government and charitable organizations, and as one person reaches out to another, the giving builds on itself.

As my uncle put it, “The people here do not know how to take without giving back.”

All over the island, he is encouraged by widespread hope, perhaps from the Puerto Rican spirit of the “jíbaro” (hee-vah-roh). This word represents both a culture and a people: a traditional oral history that promotes caring for each other and homeland and embodied in country folk who have come to symbolize hard work and resilience.

Puerto Ricans on and off the island have found their own ways to contribute to the pot of need that resulted from the devastating hurricane.

Perhaps the story of stone soup also came to me so quickly because of my memory of the Jim Henson (of The Muppets) version of the fable called “The Storyteller,” that linked the soup to the act of recounting an experience, just as my uncle had.

Henson created a main character, a beggar who is also a storyteller, who tricks the king’s cook into adding many ingredients to a soup started with the beggar’s stone, but avoids getting in trouble by agreeing to tell the king a story every day for a year.

As we enter this new year, we hear tales of hope across the globe, even from people struggling through great hardship or in a place as decimated as Puerto Rico. Like the old folk tale teaches, often the best stories result from a shared pot of soup.

 

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