Monday, June 22, 2009
How to Make Nail Broth
When I was six years old, I read a folktale that I was determined to follow in my own life. Most children have literal minds and I was no exception. It was a tale about a starving peddlar who could not persuade any one on the road to give him even a crust to eat. He was traveling and the people he encountered were deeply suspicious of strangers as well as ungenerous by nature.
The peddlar then decided to use his 'magic' to win his dinner. To the next woman he encountered, he asked not for food but simply for the use of a cooking pot and some water. She was reluctant to oblige, but when he assured her he wanted NOTHING more, she lent him a cauldron and allowed him to take some water from her well.
He then made a fire, set the cauldron over it filled with water, took a single object from his pocket, dropped it into the pot and began to stir.
He did not stir the pot casually but looked at it appraisingly every few moments, tasted the broth repeatedly, shook his head occasionally, returning afterwards to his stirring.
The woman who had lent him her cauldron became curious as to the meal he was preparing. She watched him from a distance, unwilling to let him know that she was interested at first, but finally could not contain her curiosity.
'What are you making?' she asked.
'Oh, this is 'Nail Broth', he replied. 'I have an object that contains great magic here, passed down for generations in my family. To the ignorant, it may appear to be nothing more than a common nail, but it contains the power to create a healthy, delicious broth from nothing more than water.'
A peasant woman, her native common sense and a fundamental belief in the existence of magic warred within her.
'May I taste it?' she asked, determined to get to the truth.
'Oh, of course,' he replied, bowing slightly to her with deep courtesy. 'After all, you lent me the pot that made it possible for me to eat tonight, and I am deeply indebted to you. How could I not ask you to share the most delicious soup you ever will eat in your life?'
'Well, then...' she said.
'Oh, but not yet, madam,' he urged her. 'It has not cooked long enough. The magic takes some time to work. We must wait, I fear...'
She waited with him, watching him stir the pot periodically, and go through an elaborate ritual of tasting and head-shaking. She became a little impatient.
'Surely it is done NOW,' she said.
'Well, it might be,' he replied, 'But you know, I hate to think of you tasting my magical broth and it being anything less than a taste of paradise. It will be wonderful, but it could be improved ever so slightly with one addition.'
By now, she had invested her time in the experiment, and wanted it to be the best soup she ever had tasted.
'What do you need?' she asked.
'Well, you must be an excellent cook yourself and you know soups,' he responded. 'There isn't a soup in the world, even a magical one, that wouldn't benefit from an onion. But I couldn't ask you for one... You have been so generous with the pot.'
The woman begged him to add one of her onions to the soup. After all, it would be a meal to remember and she would be able to tell the entire village about the night she partook in a magical meal.
The peddlar cut the onion and threw it into the broth, then began his ritual once again, stirring and tasting and shaking his head.
The scent of the onion now wafted through the air, making the peasant woman aware that she hadn't had HER dinner yet.
'Surely now?' she asked.
'Well, I expect one could eat it now,' the peddlar replied slowly, 'But I have been thinking. When my father had this magical nail, he told me about the best 'Nail Soup' he ever made. Yes, an Onion was used to flavour it but there was one other ingredient. It is of little consequence, of course. The Nail Broth will be incredible now, but as I have a guest tonight and I would like to reward you for your generosity, I keep thinking about that one little ingredient, all that keeps us from enjoying the perfect Nail Broth.'
'What could that be?' the woman cried. 'Surely I must have it in my garden! Please tell me, sir!'
The peddlar was reluctant at first, forcing her to beg, but finally divulged the nature of the item that would perfect his Nail Broth. All he needed was one or two sprigs of parsley.
'For, of course, parsley is an ingredient that you, madam, use in all your cooking!'
She brought the parsley to him with trembling hands. In her life, she had not experienced anything as exciting as an evening watching a stranger prepare a magical meal for HER.
The odour of the parsley and onion made her dizzy with hunger, but the peddlar still professed himself unsatisfied. As the evening wore on, the woman brought him first a potato, then a cabbage and finally killed a chicken she was saving for the next festival, assuring both herself and the peddlar that a once-in-a-lifetime experience such as this merited every possible ingredient she could give to him.
Each time he suggested another ingredient, she would respond with alacrity that SHE had it and would be delighted to give it to him for his magical stew. He would refuse initially, forcing her to beg.
At last, however, when the meat had cooked fully, the peddlar pronounced the meal ready.
And lo and behold! It proved to be the best dish she ever had eaten!
At the age of six, I didn't understand the psychology of the tale. I thought it WAS the nail that made the stew superior to all others. I begged for a nail and begged for the chance to recreate the recipe.
I therefore made 'Nail Broth' or rather 'Nail Stew' at the age of six and I have to admit that it was the WORST meal I ever had tasted because the broth was permeated by the flavour of METAL!
Throughout my life, this tale has remained a favourite, but I realised suddenly that it is more than a story about a clever psychological trick by a vagabond. It represents a method by which one can infuse life with magic.
During the worst times of my life, I have been able to find one small detail that is magical and make that the centre of my day. Even if it is nothing more than the unexpected appearance of a dove building a nest on a tree outside the house or a wonderful passage in a book, it allows me to rise above the host of problems that face me. It does not SOLVE the problems, and one still must face them, but it does give one a little extra strength and later, when it is in the past and nothing more than memory, those magical moments are what remain most vivid in the mind.
Some experiences are pure magic, and experiences on trips to new places usually rank very high in my memories. Those experiences may stand alone initially, but as time passes, they are linked to other lesser moments to become a powerful magical memory. The full moon in the sky in the rather dangerous and unpleasant town in which I live now will take me back to the memory of the full moon over a castle outside my bedroom in Dolceacqua in Liguria... and then back farther to a night when I walked along the beach on Christmas Eve with my best friend and was half in love with him. Emotions, breathtaking beauty and intangibles such as the scent of the jasmine outside our house are combined in my own personal 'Nail Broth', giving me hope when hope appears lost. Rather like the peddlar on a hostile road, one must find ways to persuade life to continue to give sustenance... and one always can.
Note: I wrote this to give myself hope after the death of my lovely Oranda Cybele.