Adapted from a Jewish folktale, this Talmudic legend connects the Roman Emperor Antonius to Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi. The story’s original focus was on the difference made by the Sabbath, while this version offers a more universal theme. Although widely shared, one of my first encounters with the piece was through Solomon and the Ant, an excellent collection by Oberman and Schram.
Spoiler Alert: This is one of the stories found in When It Matters Most.
There once was a wealthy Prince out on the hunt with his companions. They stay out beyond their usual time, tracking a deer far into the forest. Caught up in the chase, they don’t notice the clouds gathering until the storm is upon them. The first flash of lightning thunders directly over their heads without warning, spooking their horses. The Prince gets separated from the rest as his horse plunges deeper into the forest. When he tries to steady the animal, it rears, throwing him to the ground. As the deluge soaks through his layers of clothing, he watches his horse disappear into the woods.
Cold, wet, and miserable, the Prince rises to his feet and begins to walk in what he hopes is the right direction. Noticing sleet mixed in with the rain, he realizes that his life is in jeopardy. After a few hours’ walk, his limbs grow heavy and his mind sleepy.
The Prince stumbles into a clearing and sees a cabin, windows lit. Moments later, he’s out of his wet clothes and wrapped in a warm blanket by a fire. An elderly couple bring him some wine. They listen to his tale with great interest and tell the Prince that he is not far from home, but it’s not safe to travel in such a storm. The woman insists that he must stay with them for soup and a good night’s rest. The Prince doesn’t want to impose, but there is little choice.
Sitting around a table, the old couple extend their hands to each other and the Prince. They recite their prayers in a language he doesn’t understand, but he’s glad to be in their circle. More wine is poured and bread is served, along with a delicious soup. The Prince declares that it’s the best soup he’s ever tasted, unparalleled in aroma, texture, and flavor.
Later, the woman pulls out a penny whistle and leads the men in familiar songs. At one point the old man starts to dance, but quickly descends into laughter at his elderly frame’s disinclination to cooperate. The Prince feels renewed and their conversation goes late into the night before he enjoys a wonderfully sound sleep.
The next morning, they share breakfast together. The Prince has the old woman explain the recipe for the soup, which he records in minute detail. Saying his goodbyes and offering a promise of return, he thanks them for their hospitality and follows their directions home.
Upon his arrival, he calls for the Royal Chef and tells him about the incredibly delicious soup. He describes not only the vegetables, but how they were cut; not only the meat, but how it was braised. For each herb and seasoning, he notes the exact amount. Not knowing whether it makes a difference, he also details the pot, the fire, everything he can remember. He asks that the soup be prepared for dinner that evening. The Prince chuckles at his own impatience for the meal to begin.
He heads down to the dining hall and sits before a large, crackling fire. The soup is presented in a fine china bowl. With a deep breath, he takes in the aroma before dipping his spoon into the surface. He blows across the spoonful and then tastes the soup. It’s good. Perhaps, very good. But it isn’t as good as the old woman’s soup.
Disappointed, he calls for the Royal Chef, who insists that every detail was followed, right down to the shape of the pot in which it was prepared. Not convinced, the Prince goes with the Chef to the kitchen and oversees a second attempt to get it right. The result is the same. It’s good soup, but not nearly as good as the night before.
The Prince doesn’t doubt the intentions of the old woman, but she must have forgotten to mention an ingredient. The next morning he sets out for their house.
After a warm greeting and some conversation, the Prince comments again about the wonderful soup. The woman asks if he passed the recipe to his cooks. The Prince laughs and says that they weren’t able to make it to the same superb level. Perhaps something was missing? After listening to him rattle off the ingredients, the old woman assures him that nothing was missed.
‘But how can that be?’ he asks. ‘There must be some special way that you prepare the soup.’
The man and woman look at each other, sharing a smile. ‘I think,’ the old man says, ‘that you have it backwards.
‘You entered our house cold and wet,’ the woman explains, ‘but soon you were warm and dry.’
‘In the storm you were afraid and alone,’ the man continues, ‘but with us you were safe among friends.’
‘You see,’ beams the woman, ‘the soup was not prepared in a special way for you. You were prepared in a special way for the soup.’
The Prince nods his head in silence as the words sink into place. He understands. After more conversation about the events of their lives, he thanks the old couple for their hospitality, and takes his leave. Over time, he becomes a regular visitor to their home and they to his.