x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The story of stone soup

Soup can offer great comfort, in good times as well as the lean ones.

With its tangy vinegar and grassy sweetness of olive oil, gazpacho is a satisfying soup in summertime.
With its tangy vinegar and grassy sweetness of olive oil, gazpacho is a satisfying soup in summertime.

At St John restaurant in London, it's all about organ meats. As I've written before, I have something of a fetish for organ meats. It started when my uncle showed me how to scoop the viscid marrow from the lamb shanks in my oxtail soup and spread it on hunks of toasted bread. Though marrow is not often found on restaurant menus, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of organ meats in the last few years. Curiously and conveniently, this has been concurrent with the economic decline and the depression of the restaurant industry, worth $560 billion (Dh2.1 trillion) in the US alone - a country where one out of 10 working people are restaurant employees.

In late 2008, I hosted a slow food, stone soup-themed dinner, asking all who attended to budget themselves to a $15 (Dh55) maximum and make a meal using local ingredients for a potluck of about 100 people. The food and the outcome were both astonishing: there wasn't nearly enough to eat in the savoury department, but there were about 70 desserts. Not one person had attempted soup, most likely because at a potluck, it's impossible to maintain the ideal serving temperature of something that's best eaten warm. Who wants to eat cold soup?

Well, I do. I love cold soup, on the condition that it's intended to be eaten cold. I could live on vichyssoise, cold borscht with sour cream, and summer gazpacho spiked with the tang of vinegar and mellowed with the grassy sweetness of great olive oil. I love soup so much that I order it year-round and the immersion blender is my most heavily-used piece of kitchen equipment. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade; when life gives you stones, make stone soup. Barring stone soup, regular soup will do just fine.

As a preteen, I suffered (and I don't use that word lightly) from a feverish obsession with Heinz cream of chicken soup from a can: a gummy yellow mess dotted with flecks of pink miscellany. Nowadays, when I'm feeling blue or under the weather, my fallback is a huge bowl of Vietnamese pho, a beef and noodle soup that is at once soothing and restorative. My favourite Lebanese soups, which include shish barak bi laban (beef dumplings in a minted yogurt gravy) and kishk (fermented dried yogurt and bulghur wheat), though absolutely magnificent, can sometimes be too rich when the days and nights are warm.

Two stories exist when it comes to the legend of stone soup, but the stories are always about the value of sharing and the gravity of scarcity. One story about the origin of the term stone soup is that during the US's Great Depression, families unable to put food on the table every day simply placed a porous rock in the stock pot on days when there was food - and subsequently flavour - to absorb. When the table was bare, the stone would then be boiled into water to make a bland but aromatic broth, which beat not eating at all.

Another story of stone soup is a children's fairy tale in which two strangers lure villagers into helping them prepare a soup dinner by way of tricking them into thinking that they are just one ingredient short of the perfect bowlful. In other versions of the tale, the stone is replaced by a nail or a button, among other things, and the soup is renamed accordingly. Stamppot is a traditional and reliable Dutch winter dish of mashed potatoes and an approximately equal amount of raw or cooked vegetables. It's inexpensive, rib-sticking comfort food at its best, and dozens of other cultures have similar versions of starch dishes based on the same concept, though I have yet to taste one as forgiving and versatile as stamppot.

Hardcover versions of cookbooks such as The Frugal Cook by Fiona Beckett and Delia's Frugal Food by Delia Smith are on display at the grocery store - a deliciously ironic impulse buy. After being served pomegranate molasses on everything from chicken livers to salad, I think I've found a stand-in for expensive balsamico. Phillip Prager, PhD, is a keen food forager and gardener based at Cambridge University who keeps a little allotment near his college for growing his own heirloom plants. "I think it's interesting that in the last 10 years people finally have had the money to eat out but they have since become obsessed with growing their own food. The restaurant culture in England has changed so radically in the last 10 years. We have more disposable income than any other European culture and we have a class system. Nevertheless, there's been an upwards shift in the tradition of restaurant culture as well as a general inclination toward economical do-it-yourself alternatives."

When it's time to tighten the purse strings, pragmatism can often be tantamount to simplicity, but that doesn't have to mean sacrifice as long as you're willing to get creative. Even those who aren't bound by necessity can be inspired to make certain lifestyle adjustments to accommodate a slower and more prudent socioeconomic climate. All changes - especially the challenging ones - bring with them an opportunity for elevated awareness and appreciation.