‘The Third Ingredient’ The aid or graciousness of other human beings

August 12, 2020

In the year of 1908 the writer William Sydney Porter, who’s better known by the pen name O Henry, wrote one of his most famous short stories. It was titled The Third Ingredient.

At this time in his life O Henry was just getting started in his career and was living in New York City in a low-rent, rat-infested building, along with a few other young writers. He was completely without funds and when walking the halls was tantalized by the cooking odors coming through the doors of the other residents. One evening, when the young writer was at the very edge of starvation, as he walked to his one-room at the end of the long hall he was met with a delicious aroma coming from the room of his neighbor, a young woman by the name of Hetty Pepper. As he came abreast of her door it opened and he was asked if he would like to share her meal with her.

Hetty had made soup using the discarded liver and heart of a calf that was called Heglett soup. She had lost her job that day, and had only a few coins left, just enough to buy the fragments of meat left on the floor of the butcher’s shop. Yet she was gracious enough to offer to share her meal with a neighbor. When writing his rendition of the story O Henry appeared to deliberately use the symbolic image of the heart of the calf as a component of the soup.

The sad little scene of two young people, both “without a penny to their names” is one that forms the framework of the story that O Henry subsequently wrote about human beings who have come “to the end of their hopes”. But it was a story with a twist that incorporated a moral taken from old European stories known as “stone soup” tales. Sometimes it was a slab of wood or another bulk item instead of a stone, but each tale had the common thread of incorporating the value of sharing.
As an example imagine a scene where a destitute family of travelers has camped on the edge of a village. Their meal strategy is to fill a pot with water and then adding a large stone before suspending it over a fire to cook. With the addition of the stone the level of the liquid appears to be enough for several consumers. As inquiring villagers approach they are informed that this is a wonderful soup and their family would like to share, however it needs some extras in order to be more flavorful. As the tale goes, different villagers contribute vegetables and seasonings to create an actual soup. They have been tricked into helping create a meal which is shared with everyone.

Variations of O Henry’s “the third ingredient” have morphed into many different versions. He had created a literary concept that was flexible enough to encompass whatever you wanted to add as the extra ingredient. One popular version I recall introduces a third character who lives down the hall. He too is drastically destitute but is in possession of a potato and an onion. In one version, he offers his one onion to a wealthy couple who needs that third ingredient for an uptown dinner party in their high-rise apartment for a group of wealthy friends.

The point is that these stories embrace a theme of individuals who have depended on their fellow man for help, whether it be a potato, onion, or meat clippings in sawdust on the floor of a butcher’s shop. You can’t make soup without an onion is symbolic of that essential “third ingredient”, the aide or graciousness of other human beings.

I was brought up in a family that believed in sharing with our neighbors, and our “third ingredient” was having enough for others less fortunate. My mother always had a garden and this time of the year would be planning the processing and canning of the various varieties she had nurtured throughout the earlier weeks of the summer. But she always had enough to share with a neighbor, especially those who didn’t have the land or resources to grow their own fresh produce. I even remember her giving out one of her precious jars of canned vegetables, with the understanding of course that the equally precious jar would be returned!

And sometimes she traded with a neighbor when she had too much of one thing and they too much of a different variety. All in the interest of being neighborly.

I hope you have been inspired by the idea of “the third ingredient”, especially in this time of enforced isolation for many. The importance of remembering individuals who may need assistance from others. Our modern 2020 version might be the offer of performing their grocery shopping…or giving them masks…or yes, providing some fresh vegetables from the garden.