Grim's Grub: Stone soup, the great equalizer

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Community meals are a thing of beauty where everyone puts in their share of work, everyone contributes food and everyone gets fed. Could there be a concept more pure?

Today, the potluck is a shining example of this, where salads, shredded meat and fizzy beverages are assembled into an extravagant meal often with so much variety that it takes several passes to sample just one partial serving of each dish, a practice necessary to really enjoy the event. This communal practice was once quite different, however, and had more in common with stone soup or hobo stew than a picnic.

The first use of the word "potluck" was written by Thomas Nashe in the 16 th century, where it was described as “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.”

It got this description because it wasn't a matter of people bringing a completed dish, but bringing ingredients to be cooked together in a pot. Keep in mind that soup or stew is the most universal food there is, existing in some form everywhere around the globe for very simple reasons.

You can make it out of literally anything. Boiling is an easy way to cook items that need cooking. It's often cheap and a good way to stretch food while getting every last nutrient available. That's why potlucks originated as soups. An impromptu gathering of folks would require food, but likely most folks in the 16 th century wouldn't be able to afford to feed a whole group on short notice just by themselves. So each person would bring their own ingredient for the good of the gathering.



A poor individual may have a small pile of shriveled potatoes, or some bones, dried meat, wilted celery or tomatoes. Alone these items would make a pretty sad meal for even one person. But coming together with others, those individuals could throw their ingredients in together with those from their neighbors and make a dish of great flavor and value.

The interesting part is that the ingredients would all basically be equal once put together. Wilted potatoes could provide the substance of a potluck. Bones, while not impressive by themselves, would provide the broth. Celery and carrots could bring the flavor.

This wouldn't be what we might call a potluck today, of course, but has more in common with hobo stew, or stone soup.

It's possible the potluck evolved from stone soup, as that concept seems to be older. The story goes like this. Travelers or soldiers arrive at a village with nothing but an empty cooking pot. At first the locals don't want to provide them with any food, so they go to a stream and fill their pot with water and a single large stone, which they set to boil.

Curious, the villagers now inquire why they are boiling the stone. The travelers explain they are making a delicious stone soup, which they will share with anyone who contributes ingredients. The same villagers who would not share with them before now contribute meats, vegetables, table scraps and spices.

The travelers remove the stone and everyone is fed, and though called “stone soup,” the secret ingredient really is generosity or community. Apparently in other portions of eastern Europe the stone in the story is replaced with other inedible objects - axes, buttons and other items - but the point remains the same.


Today's image of the potluck was likely yet another child of the Great Depression. Where there are hungry people, food history is inevitably born. In a situation where entire communities don't have quite enough to provide a satisfying meal to themselves as individuals, what could be better than a potluck to remind hungry people that all is not yet lost.

Ultimate 7 Layer Dip

  • 1 can refried beans
  • 1 tablespoon taco seasoning mix
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup thick salsa
  • 1 cup shredded lettuce
  • 1 cup finely shredded four cheese blend
  • 4 green onions, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons sliced black olives

Mix the beans and seasoning mix, then spread on the bottom of a pie plate. Layer all the remaining ingredients in order. Serve with chips.
Snickers Salad

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 3-4 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cubed
  • 4-6 regular Snickers bars, chopped
  • 1 large tub Cool Whip

Cream the butter and powdered sugar together. Combine the remaining ingredients and mix until evenly coated. Refrigerate before serving.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

Seven layer dip

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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