In Isolation with Liam Pieper

Location: Sydney, Australia

There’s a memory I have of my grandmother reading to me which I’m not sure is a real memory, or a chimera of one—fragments of life stored in the same part of the brain and sewn together over years through time and sentiment. The memory is of a children’s book called Stone Soup, a story she read to me time and again before I could read myself; back when a story had a way of growing more precious and soothing each time you heard it, when all stories were lullaby, when being read to was indistinguishable from reading.

The basics of the story are so: a penniless wanderer knocks on the door of a stranger’s home and convinces them that he knows how to make delicious soup by boiling a magical stone he keeps in his pocket. The wanderer puts the soup on the stove, and little by little he coaxes ingredients to garnish the soup from the stranger’s own pantry: onions, carrots, bones, spices, and soon, as if by magic, there is a rich soup in the pot.

Different versions of this story are found across European folklore. The identity of the wanderer, his host, the ingredients of the soup, and moral of the story change according to whichever culture it’s told in. The story, like the soup, tends to get saltier the further east you travel.

In Portugal, the traveller is a poor friar who finds himself starving on the threshold of the town of Almeirim. Too proud to beg, he pulls the stone soup trick in the town square. Little by little, the villagers make suggestions on how to improve the recipe, and bring out salt, potatoes and beans, chouriço, pork belly. The result is sopa da pedra, the thick, moreish Catholic comfort food. When the friar moves on, stone in his pocket, the villagers have learned a powerful lesson about sharing and generosity.

In the Hungarian version, the traveller is a starving soldier returning to his homeland, who then sells the stone on to the villagers at the end of the story. In the Russian tradition, the soup is made from an axe-head. The German version flirts with anti-Semitism, and involves a pilgrim on his way to Jerusalem who tricks a miserly household into handing over their hoarded foods to contribute to the stone soup. It’s this version, where the overwhelming lesson seems to be in the joys of mendacity, that made it to England, then Ireland, and finally, through Grandma, to me.

I was so taken by the legend that whenever my Grandma was making soup, she would trek to the garden, bring in a smooth round stone, and add it the pot, thrilling me insensible. Her soup was always a roughly improvised Scotch broth, a Celtic variant of the French pot-au-feu: a thick stew of barley and bone. A spoon dipped below the surface—an iridescent slick of oil and butter—would churn up a silt of wonders. Slivers of carrots reduced to mush, salty little bursts of potato that dissolved on the tongue, the surprising pop of sweetcorn and green peas, fresh from the freezer, barely ruffled by the indignity of cooking.

In my large, fractious Irish Catholic family, this was one of the few things we could all agree on—that the soup was transcendently good. Served with supermarket white bread and margarine scooped from an ancient Pyrex bowl, the entire table fall into a contented hush for the duration of the meal.

Grandma was the one who talk me to cook. I years spent toddling after her in the kitchen, convinced she was the source of all culinary knowledge. She showed me a trick with a tomato once: you slice the fruit in half, sprinkle salt on only one half, and wait five minutes. Taste the plain tomato, taste the seasoned one. Imagine my eyes bugging out of my tiny head as I realised that you can take a dull, sour, hateful thing and make it glorious with time and seasoning.

A spoon dipped below the surface—an iridescent slick of oil and butter—would churn up a silt of wonders. 

A later realisation, once I was an adult: Grandma wasn’t a particularly good cook. Just so-so, just proficient. She cooked the food I liked, and I liked it because she cooked it. Fish-fingers with lemon, oven chips with White Crow, lettuce drenched in Paul Newman dressing. All of it a tiny little gastronomic morphine drip. But most of all, the soup.

A generation ago the recipe called for beef bones, but then the 70s happened, and much of the family became vegetarian, and Grandma did too, and so the soup was adapted: an extra handful of barley, a little vinegar to leach the umami from the grain, to thicken the broth, to fool the carnivores in our midst. Everyone in the family asked her how she made it, and all of them had a recipe somewhere she’d dutifully tapped out on her typewriter. But none of us could ever recreate it. Every time I tried to make it, it came out wrong.

There was an interlude, a decade or so I was lost to the world, and when I returned, I began the process of getting to know my grandma as an adult. Her typewriter, a hulking Olivetti, now sat in the centre of her dining table. When my books were reviewed in the paper she would cut out the clippings and post them to me, along with little missives and memories from her life—books long passed the pulping point that she urged me to track down. At some point, she began to talk about how she would die. As the years passed it became one of the only things she would talk about.

One day she had ‘a fall’. Such a toothless euphemism for what it is. It’s a wild thing, when the woman who shaped you as an infant begins to fade from the world, the long-held dignities slipping away into a future that grew opaque and oily when you looked to it. When I visited, I would fix the tea, help her chop vegetables. One day, I asked her to teach me how to make stone soup again. I asked what she was doing that nobody else in the family could get right. She went to the back of the cupboard, slid some boxes out of the way and retrieved two cartons of Campbell’s stock. There was a twinkle in her eye, a touch of the confessional: “I don’t make the soup at all. It comes in a box.”

This, then, was the secret. It was right there in the storybook: the secret is mendacity, in pretending a thing is good and wholesome until the world makes it so. She died in the early hours on the day the first coronavirus case was reported in Australia. At the funeral, the various wings of the family gave separate eulogies. But we all spoke about the soup, how much we missed it. Afterwards, we stuck to our various corners at the wake and ate soggy white bread sandwiches, drank wine from plastic cups.

Perhaps you have been shopping during the lockdown. Perhaps, like me, you bought the ingredients for a mighty bout of self care and then found yourself too stressed, too besieged, somehow too busy despite having nothing to do to cook a decent dinner.

Things fall apart. Especially in kitchens. You will go to your fridge, and survey your broken kingdom of dreams, the odds and ends of vegetables, a near-terminal bag of green beans, a wilting head of celery, the sum parts of a planned ratatouille, now a monument to hubris. But all is not lost, it is never all lost. You will rally.

You will find at the back of the cupboard a jar of pearlescent barley. You will boil it with stock, with beans, with a French trick with an onion you learned from someone you will never see again. With this, you will bring it all to life again. All the best recipes started as salvage, a monument to scarcity and improvisation. There are no rules beyond those we choose to adhere to. You will fossick in the garbage and the muck and you will create something perfect, and pure as the slick of oil on its oceanic surface. You will make stone soup.

By Liam Pieper