Such good news–Reb Shlomo’s Tante Peshke from Bialok was coming to visit!
Shlomo the carpenter and his lovely wife Malke waited outside the shul in Vaysechvoos for the carriage to arrive.
The crumpled letter from Tante Peshke, Shlomo’s only wealthy relative, was clutched in his hand. My dearest great-nephew,” it read, “I have decided to visit Vaysechvoos and see you for what might be my last trip away from Bialok . . . .”
“I am the last nephew with whom she has no quarrel,” Shlomo informed his wife. “Perhaps she will enjoy her time with us and show her gratitude with a substantial inheritance!” Shlomo had never met his spinster great-aunt, but from the rest of the mishpochah he knew that she was very rich and very hard to please.
“We will be so agreeable that Tante Peshke will be unable to find fault with us, Shlomo went on. “Everything she says will be clever, everything she does will be admirable. Rich people expect that, you know. And she’ll leave feeling that we are her most deserving relatives.”
Malke looked doubtful, but nodded her head.
Tante Peshke’s carriage arrived–pulled by no less than three horses! And when the elderly lady of Bialok emerged, she wore not one, but two ropes of pearls around her neck, with each pearl the size of a thumbnail!! Her dress was of the finest silk. As she stepped down from the coach, Shlomo bowed so low you would have thought Tante Peshke was the Czarina herself.
And indeed, through the entire week of her visit Tante Peshke was treated as royalty. Nothing was spared by way of expense or attention. “Surely she will remember us ‘royally’ in her will,” chuckled Shlomo on the next to the last evening she would spend with them.
The next morning, Tante Peshke made a strange request of her nephew and his wife: “You have been so kind and considerate, now I wish to do something for you. I’d like to prepare the soup for supper this evening.”
“Oh, Tante Peshke,” Malke protested. “You are our guest. Where would our manners be if we allowed you to cook?”
But the older woman insisted. “I’ll make the soup and I’ll hear no more about it. Why, back in Bialok people have said no one makes soup quite like mine.”
“How wonderful,” beamed Shlomo, “to taste soup the way it was meant to be. Not that your soup, my dear wife, is so bad,” he hastily added, seeing Malke’s expression take a turn downward, “but after all, Tante Peshke could have been a famous chef had she wanted to be one!”
Malke smiled weakly and assembled all the ingredients that Tante Peshke requested. She offered to help cut the onions and carrots, but Peshke would have no one in the kitchen while she was cooking. “1 know you want my secret recipe. Well, you’ll have it soon enough. But as long as I’m living, no one makes soup like mine…”
Well, Tante Peshke from Bialok was right. No one made soup like hers! It was all Shlomo and Malke could do to keep from spitting out their first spoonful. It was as salty as sea water with ten times as much pepper as any normal person could stand. Still, Shlomo was determined to please his great-aunt. “Tante Peshke,” he exclaimed, “this is seasoned in a most unique way! Isn’t it, dear?” And he turned to his wife, whose eyes widened as she began to choke on a bone. Shlomo gave her a hearty slap on the back.
“Tsk, tsk,” Tante Peshke shook her head, “and I was so sure I had strained out all the bones.”
“But everyone knows that bones enhance the flavor of the broth,” Shlomo reassured his great-aunt.
“Yes, I suppose. But how are the vegetables?”
Funny she should ask, because Shlomo had just spooned a gigantic piece of half-cooked carrot into his mouth. He kept trying to smile and nod, but in his desire to make short work of the carrot he bit his tongue. He bravely continued crunching the carrot as his great-aunt inquired, “Maybe the vegetables should have been cut smaller, cooked longer?”
“Oh, no!” Shlomo blurted the moment he had swallowed the last of the carrot. “Had they been smaller or cooked a moment longer, the soup would have been ordinary. As it is…” he struggled for words.
“As it is . . . the soup is. . .” his wife joined in feebly, having just bitten into a piece of nearly raw onion.
“I’ve never tasted any like it,” Shlomo finished.
“Well, my appetite is no longer as hearty as yours,” said Peshke. “But it gives me pleasure to see you eat.” With that she sat back and watched as her great-nephew and niece drained their bowls to the very bottom.
“Well,” Tante Peshke said as they were finishing, “I have important guests coming for dinner next week. Maybe I should give the cook the night off and prepare the meal myself. . . at least the soup, since, as you say, none compares with mine. What do you think?”
“Oh,” said Malke, mortified by the thought of anyone else having to endure a bowl of so utterly awful a concoction. “Well I … that is…”
Her husband interrupted. “A splendid idea!”
Malke held her tongue, but she was visibly anxious.
Later, as they prepared for bed, Malke chided her husband. “How could you encourage your great-aunt to cook for her guests next week, when it is obvious she knows her way around a kitchen like I know my way around the Czar’s palace? She will be humiliated and her guests will likely choke to death!”
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “Everyone knows wealthy people are a little crazy and a lot impulsive. Tonight she intends to cook for her guests. But next week? After all, would you make the soup if you had a paid cook? Once home, she will have forgotten the whole idea.”
“I hope so,” Malke murmured.
The next day Tante Peshke went home to Bialok. Three weeks later she sent Shlomo and Malke the following note:
Dear Shlomo and Malke,
Since you enjoyed my soup so much I am giving you my recipe. Make an ordinary pot of soup except for this: put in ten times the proper amount of salt and pepper. Cut the onions and carrots into large chunks and throw them in minutes before serving the soup, unstrained and full of bones, of course.
And there was one special ingredient in the soup I made for you: hope. I hoped that just one of my relatives would have the strength of character to be honest with a rich old woman!