Food and stories go together like soup and cold days. Right now, the sun shines, though it does not heat with the same intensity as in the rainy season. The hills that surround Cuzco are brown and the earth is just waking from her winter slumber to take on her fertile cloak of green.
At night cold rules the city and the surrounding hills. As a result, nothing is better than a hot soup in the morning or evening to fortify one and prepare her or him to handle the cold.
Not only is it good to tell stories when it is cold and people are sitting around all bundled up. But within the stories the importance of soup to defeat the cold appears in Quechua folktales.
In the delightful collection gathered by José María Arguedas, the great Peruvian literary figure and ethnographer who would have celebrated his hundredth birthday earlier this year, and deftly translated by Ruth Stephan, entitled Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People, a story is told that helps understand the importance of soup.
Entitled simple “The Hail,” ( pp93-95) the story talks about a man roaming the high, desolate valleys of the Andes, like those near Cuzco. As night comes, and with it cold, a storm overtakes him with thunder and hail.
If you have ever been on a high mountain when a hail storm comes you know the drama it brings; jagged lightning crashing around you, thunder beating the air and making you feel like you were inside a bass drum in a marching band contest, while the landscape turns white with condensed cold–hail.
The man naturally seeks a place to get out of the cold and wet, as well as to escape the lightning and thunder.
He sees before him two low-slung huts. In front of one of them a ragged old woman dressed in yellow sits.
“Please, will you give me shelter? I have no where to go and it is storming”
The old woman has him enter one of the houses where there is a fire going and earthenware pots bubbling above it.
“Sit down” the old woman says as she pulls up a sheepskin for him to sit on. “Have some soup.”
She served him a bowl of hot soup with lots of meat in it.
The man hungrily scarfed down the soup. But, despite it being full of meat it did not satisfy him. Pangs of hunger still reverberated in his gut.
The thunder and hail kept getting closer. You could hear its echoing sound getting nearer and nearer. ‘tunrun, tunrun, tunrun”
“Hurry. You need to finish faster. Those are my three sons. They are the thunder, lightning, and hail. One is blind, one lame, and the other is normal. But they are mean. If you do not hurry and they find you they will kill you
As the wanderer put down the empty bowl of soup containing nothing more than bones, she asked “do you have anything with kañiwa (amaranth) flour?”
“Here, I have some food I was carrying. It was made of kañiwa.
“You gotta hide yourself, quickly” she said as the hail and thunder began rattling the hut’s wooden door. “Get under here” she ordered, as she lifted a huge earthenware pot with which she covered him.
“They mustn’t smell you. If they do they will come and kill you. The meat int he soup is from animals they killed.”
The hail and its brothers entered the hut next door and could be heard rustling and rattling around. The old woman hurried to dish them up some soup and take it to them.
“Mom. How come there is a strange scent? What is it? Do we need to go kill what ever is making it?”
“No, my dear, it is just this, toasted kañiwa flour. It tastes sweet.”
While her three sons, thunder, lightning, and hail ate their soup accompanied with the kañiwa flour, the traveler fell asleep.
When he awoke, it was already midday. He had slept the night and morning away. He sat up and looked around. But all he saw was the high, barren valley, though he had been sleeping right on the edge of a marsh. Fortunately he had not fallen in and died from the wet cold. Instead, he got up and made his way “on the cold, silent plain.”
In a bit over a month the rains will start again, and with them the land will turn green, days will get warmer, but there will also be lots of thunder and hail. Soup, hot and nourishing, accompanied by something like kañiwa flour, or bread, will keep the cold and the deadly triplets away, as long as you share the meal with them.
Then food will fill you and give you energy, and you can continue your path.