Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Kitchen Wisdom: An Elder Tale

Photo by Takashi .M.
Below is a summary of an elder tale from Japan that features a mature woman using her wisdom to escape a difficult situation.

This year I'm summarizing one elder tale per month from various sources.  Usually, the protagonist of a fairy tale is a young person.  However, a handful of tales featuring older heroes have survived, and I think they are worth reading.

When Cooking Works Magic

One upon a time there was an old woman who lived alone in a humble hut in the forest.

Photo by Gullhem Vellut.
She was making herself rice dumplings one day when one of the dumplings rolled off the table and out the door.

Before she could retrieve it, a mischievous oni (a forest demon) scampered out of the forest and snatched it up.

Undeterred, the old woman ran after the oni, calling out, "Give me back my dumpling!"

Before she realized the inherent danger, the old woman had followed the oni into a cave where he lived with dozens of other onis.

A handful of the onis feasted on her dumplings and yearned for more.

They surrounded the old woman and began shouting, "More dumplings! More dumplings!"

They brought her to their fire pit surrounded by a kitchen items and told her to cook for them all.  She was overwhelmed by the task.

Photo by Tanakawho.
The largest and oldest oni of the group came forward and gave her a long, ornate red spoon, telling  her, "This magic spoon will help you accomplish your task."

She took the cooking pot to the river that ran through the cave and then set the pot upon the coals of their fire.

As she began to stir rice into a large pot, the magic spoon multiplied the few grains of rice until the pot was full.

Soon she was serving dozens of dumplings to the hungry onis.  They ate and ate and ate until they were so full that they grew sleepy.

As they slept, the old woman carried the red spoon and the cooking pot to the river. She crawled in the pot and then used the spoon to row herself towards the opening of the cave.

One of the onis with a half an eye still open saw her escaping. "More dumplings! More dumplings!" he yelled. The others began to rouse and run towards the river.

The old woman used the spoon to scoop up fish and toss them to the onis. They were more interested in eating the fish than chasing her, which allowed her to exit the cave.

Photo by Tanaka Juuyoh.
After she returned home, she was now capable of making enough dumplings to sell to the local village.

Her delicious dumplings earned her not only money but praise and admiration from the villagers.

In gratitude, the old woman set out dumplings at the edge of the forest each evening for the onis to enjoy.

My View

I like this story because it demonstrates the power that women  have when performing seemingly mundane and thankless tasks. The old woman's skill in the kitchen doesn't just meet her nutritional needs. It saves her from extraordinary peril.

In the west, we have the phrase, "Keep the wolves from the door." This phrase dramatizes the survival needs that we all have.  Even in our sanitized, modern world that is devoid of animal predators, we need to satisfy basic needs to survive.

In this case, the threat of extinction takes the form of a forest demon.  Dangers in fairy tales connect to the most primal fears we have about surviving.

At the end, the old woman does more than survive. She achieves a measure of wealth as well as a degree of fame for her culinary skills. I often feel unappreciated for the domestic chores I perform at home. This tale ennobles those domestic acts and dramatizes their importance.

She escapes because she knows her way around even a crude kitchen, she knows how to appease a hungry crowd, and she knows how to manipulate cooking utensils in innovative ways.

Hmmm. Maybe I should flex my power base and cook dinner tonight?

Sources for This Tale

I first found the following story in Burleigh Muten's 1999 collection, Grandmother Stories: Wise Woman Tales from Many Cultures.

Cover of Muten's book
She gives this story the title, "The Old Woman Who Was Not Afraid."

This was one of my children's favorite stories when they were in grade school.  We still allude to it when they get overwhelmingly hungry.

I also found that it's included in Ann G. Thomas' 1997 book The Women We Become: Myth, Folktales and Stories about Growing Older.

You can find a PDF of Thomas' book here.  A discussion of this tale begins on p. 125.


The Old Alchemist: An Elder Tale from Burma
The Magic Forest: An Elder Tale from Croatia
Hats for Statues: An Elder Tale from Japan


  1. And it's so interesting that she shows gratitude to the oni - she was kidnapped and frightened, but that ended up being the key to her good fortune and once she was out of danger, she let the frightening part go and appreciated what she'd gotten from it.

  2. Years ago, I decided to learn to cook and bake, in order to see those smiling faces around the dinner table. It didn't take long for me to realize that my family was spoiled and seldom wanted to dine out. I still cook most of our evening meals, and sometimes I feel somewhat enslaved. This story reminded me that preparing food is an art and feeding others can be a gift of love. I especially appreciated the fact that the old woman was able to forgive her captors. I always enjoy a happy ending....guess we can all hope for that.

  3. An important lesson to share our good fortune with all, including those with whom we have issues.