Retirement Home Residents Hold Annual Stone Soup Day
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 22, 2002 It was a beehive of activity as gardeners and volunteers briskly cleaned, washed and chopped freshly harvested homegrown vegetables to add to the steaming pot of "stone soup."
Not a single morsel of meat was allowed to infiltrate the large pot of fresh vegetables as soup master Sylvester Rychlinski gently and lovingly stirred the simmering mixture. He has been cooking the annual pot of stone soup for many years and makes it clear that nobody else is allowed to touch the giant ladle.
Rychlinski cooks the soup in a large silver-colored pot atop a gas burner set up in a grassy area near the pristine patchwork of lushly landscaped gardens here at the U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home, formerly called the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home.
Stone Soup Day marks the end of the growing season for aging veterans at the retirement home that's nestled on more than 300 secure, park-like acres in the heart of the nation's capital. More than 1,000 retired men and women of the armed forces, including the Coast Guard, reside at the northwest Washington home.
Guarding the steaming pot, Rychlinski, a former Army medic, said he honed his cooking skills through culinary courses at the University of Miami while stationed in that city.
"We garden on our own, just like a hobby," said Rychlinski, who planted a garden, mostly vegetables, until medical complications forced him to stop this year. "Everybody limits their own time, there's no set time. You can spend all day or an hour. It keeps you occupied -- it's good therapy."
Researchers at the Chicago Botanic Garden Horticultural Therapy agree. They said the benefits of people-plant interactions promote relaxation, lowered stress, social involvement, mental stimulation and improved motor skills. There are also the physical benefits of exercise and mobility, including improved muscle strength, flexibility and cardiopulmonary capability.
"We grow stuff and give it away," Rychlinski said. "It's something to do. Everybody looks forward to the fresh tomatoes instead of the cold refrigerated ones. All the gardeners pitch in things they grew for our annual stone soup day." He retired from the Army in 1964 as a master sergeant after fighting in three conflicts World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War.
When the growing season and harvest time are over, Rychlinski hangs out at the arts and crafts center and the library. "We have all kinds of activities here," he noted. "It's up to the individual himself because everything is available."
While Rychlinski's beloved stone soup simmered, judges from the Department of Agriculture slowly promenaded in whispered tones through the area in search of the top three gardens.
Selecting them m is part of the Armed Forces Retirement Home Stone Soup Day tradition. This year's judges were Bob Bennett of the bio control lab and Ernie Goins and Elizabeth Ogden of the research service.
While selecting the best vegetable gardens, the judges couldn't overlook the hues of Garmon R. Goodson's beautiful, artistically designed flower garden. They were so impressed that they bestowed a special honorable mention on him for his work.
Goodson, 82, started out planting vegetable gardens more than 10 years ago, about two years after becoming a resident at the home. He always planted winners and garnered seven top prizes, including four first places over the years.
A couple of years ago, he started adding flowers among the edible plants. "This year, I decided to go all flowers," said Goodson, who retired from the Army in 1965 as a staff sergeant. "I had almost everything in the vegetable line cucumbers, string beans, squash, tomatoes, potatoes -- except corn, because the squirrels eat corn.
"Last year, one of the gardeners complained that I had too many flowers the year before," Goodson said with a hearty laugh. "He said, 'I thought you were supposed to judge it on vegetables.' I got tired of picking vegetables, so I went all flowers."
Calling gardening his only hobby, Goodson said he doesn't do much during the cold months, not even read much because of his failing sight. "So I usually don't do anything, except go on a few trips," he said. "So I look forward to gardening in the spring of the year."
This year's first-place vegetable garden winner was retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mike Marcella, 74, a resident of the home since June 1969. Second place went to retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Lloyd Gaudin, 80, a resident since June 1988. Third place went to the team of retired Army Staff Sgt. Jesse James, 73, who has been at the home for more than 30 years, and retired Army Chief Warrant Officer William Woods, who became a resident in 1999.
Stone Soup Day is a tradition at the retirement home that started more than 30 years ago, according to Brad Reavis, master of ceremonies for the awards presentation.
Reavis, who runs the home's fitness center, said stone soup is a story about a hungry soldier returning from war looking for food. Reavis recounted the age old French tale:
The soldier knocked on the door of a cottage and when a farm lady answered, he said, "Ma'am, I'm hungry and was wondering if you'd be able to give me something to eat."
The lady said, "We're poor and don't really have anything." The soldier said, "Well, I'd like to make a stone soup," and asked the lady if she had a soup pot. She said yes and handed him the pot.
"So he reached into his bag and pulled out a simple stone and put it into the pot and added water," said Reavis.
Reavis said the soldier then asked the lady if she had a tomato. She gave him a tomato and he cut it up and put it in the pot. Then he asked her for an onion. She said I think we can find one. He cut up the onion and put it into the pot.
"He continued to name vegetable after vegetable, and the lady kept coming up with an ear of corn, head of lettuce, string beans, all of which the soldier cut up and put into the pot," Reavis noted.
"The pot simmered, and after it was finally cooked and the vegetables were all smelling fine, they fixed themselves bowls of soup and ate it," Reavis said.
When they finished, the soldier thanked the farm lady. He took his rock out of the soup pot, washed it of and put it back into his bag. He thanked the lady again for the stone soup.
"The idea being that if every gardener contributes at least one item to the soup pot, in the end you ended up with a very bountiful pot of soup starting only with a rock," Reavis explained.
"We put a rock into our pot of soup, too, and the second thing is water," Reavis noted. "All the different residents contribute different vegetables, and we cut it all up and put it in the pot. We do a very traditional stone soup. There is no meat of any kind; it's strictly vegetable soup." While some gardeners are putting their vegetable gardens to bed, others are planning to harvest until the first heavy frost. Still others are planting winter crops now. An anonymous gardener on the Internet said, "the end of the gardening season to me is like the end of a good concert or play. You feel good, you turn away, and you think about it for a while."
For more information about stone soup, click on the following URL: http://www.infodepot.org/stonesoup.htm#history