November 25th, 2009, 12:41 pm

Culinary Stories of the Week: "Stone Soup" and "Sunbird"

I'm kinda cheating this week, talking about a short story and a children's book rather than a novel, but I wanted to share both a tale nostalgic to me and a yarn that made me laugh.

"Stone Soup" is a children's tale about how some travelers trick a miserly village into cooking soup for them. The version I read involved two pigs named Winston and Clara who convince a bear mayor that "stone soup" can save his town from apparent famine, based on a recipe they learned from the Wadoo of Wixieland. And no, the story doesn't say who this Wadoo is or where you'd find Wixieland on the map.

I grew up reading and rereading this book; I liked how Winston and Clara snapped at each other about the soup's ingredients. I also begged my mom to let me make the soup, but she and my father wisely ignored me. The illustrations were fluid and funny, filled with cows hiding milk in wells and goats pretending to be hungry. Unfortunately, I lost the original picture book and I can't find it on the Internet. If you do get a chance, please let me know if you can find the cover.

"Sunbird" is a whole different experience. A Neil Gaiman yarn from Fragile Things, his second adult short story collection, it involves a culinary club that eats fantasy creatures as a hobby. The title "Sunbird" is a phoenix roasted in Egypt in a beer can. Once the club samples this delicacy, then they will have tasted all the fancy fairy foods that exist in this world. How more unusual can you get as an epicure?

Here the phoenix is not a helpful intelligent creature, but simply a fantastic being with tender, mouthburning meat. Andrew Zimmern from Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods would probably sample it if he got the chance. Maybe I would, too, if my mom cooked it.

This story was written for Gaiman's daughter Holly, who requested it as a birthday present. Her father chose well, because the story has a light, whimsical tone despite its satirically dark ending. It also has a lyrical flow that when read aloud it may float over your lips as you laze in a rowboat on a the Thames. And gah, Holly has one of the world's greatest fantasy writers for a father, who can also bake a mean rhubarb pie and the works.

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