The Story of the Beautiful Meal (A Parable)
A wise woman was making her way through a distant land and she came upon a peculiar village. The people there were friendly, but they were weak and frail in appearance and slow in their movements.
When evening came, the woman sat on a large stone in the village square and took out a portion of the food she had prepared that morning before beginning her day’s journey. As she was preparing her meal, however, one of the villagers invited the woman to come to have dinner with his family and to stay the night in their home.
The woman accepted the man’s kind invitation and went to his home. There, she met his wife and his two children, a girl and a boy. Like the other people she had seen in the village, the family members were all thin and frail. It was this appearance, perhaps, that prompted the woman’s surprise when they served the evening meal. She had expected a poor fare, something that reflected their feeble stature. Instead, the meal they served appeared to be robust and sumptuous. The food was carefully prepared and arranged exquisitely on ornate plates.
Taking in the fine appearance of the meal, the woman was expecting the taste of delight when she took her first bite. As she began to chew the food, however, she realized it had no taste at all. Continuing to eat, she came to understand that the dinner was also lacking in any kind of real sustenance. It did little to reduce her hunger, and nothing to replenish her energy. “What a stroke of luck that I still have the food I prepared for today’s journey,” she thought.
That night, after saying goodnight to the family, the woman retired to her room and again took out a portion of the food she had prepared that morning before beginning her day’s journey. The morsel wasn’t as aesthetically appealing as the dinner served by the family, but what it lacked in appearance it more than made up for in taste and nourishment. She ate slowly, savoring the first bite in her mouth before swallowing. She closed her eyes and smiled, feeling the sustaining warmth of the aliment flow through her body.
As she opened her eyes, she noticed the two children standing in the doorway to her room. They stared at the meal she held between her hands.
“That doesn’t look very good,” the girl said.
“It’s actually quite delicious,” the woman said. “Would you like some?”
The children looked at the woman with uncertainty but their curiosity moved them to the chair where she sat. The girl held out her hand sheepishly.
“I bet you like this,” the woman said, placing a small piece of food in the girl’s hand.
The girl looked down at the small portion and then sniffed it carefully. After a bit of hesitation, she finally placed it on her tongue, closed her mouth slowly, and shut her eyes. After a moment, she smiled.
“It does taste good,” the girl said.
Almost immediately, her brother spoke up and raised his hand for attention. “I’d like to try a piece as well,” he said.
The woman grinned at him and broke off a piece of her meal for him to sample. He took it and thrust it eagerly into his mouth.
“She’s right,” the boy said after a moment. “It’s very good.”
“There’s more if you like,” the woman said.
The children eagerly grabbed extra pieces and then, because they had been taught proper manners, said polite “Thank you’s,” and hurried off to bed.
The next morning, the woman sought out the children’s father and mother to thank them for their hospitality. She found the mother in the kitchen and asked if she would like help with breakfast.
“How kind of you to offer,” the mother said. “I must tend to the children and could certainly use some help this morning.”
After the mother left, the woman set about happily preparing a nourishing breakfast for the family. She was putting food on the family’s plates when the mother returned.
“What is this?” the mother said with alarm as she looked at the breakfast the woman had prepared.
“It is a nourishing meal for strong bodies,” the woman said.
“I can hardly believe that,” the mother said. “It certainly doesn’t look like much.”
“Here,” the woman said. “Have a bite.” She took a spoonful of her creation and handed it to the mother who put it in her mouth dutifully.
“Hmmmm…,” the mother said after a moment. “This is delicious.”
“But we can’t serve it to the family. Not like this!”
“Why not?” asked the woman.
“Because it looks so plain!” the mother said. “Our village is known far and wide for serving the most sumptuous and beautiful food in the kingdom. What you have prepared, as good as it tastes, is… well, it’s rather unappealing, I’m afraid.”
To the mother’s surprise (after all, she was extremely kind and hated that she had insulted the woman’s cooking), the woman laughed heartily.
“If that’s the problem,” the woman said, “Then I’m certainly in the right place! I’ve seen your exquisite dishes and I’m sure you can help make mine presentable.”
With such praise and encouragement, the mother began fussing over the plates and, before long, dressed up the woman’s cooking to resemble a veritable artistic feast.
“Now,” she said. “That’s a meal a family can be proud of.”
The woman smiled and followed the mother as she carried the breakfast meal into the dining room, where the father and two children were waiting expectantly.
The whole family began to eat slowly, methodically, but after a few bites they ate with greater urgency. Soon they were devouring their food.
“This is incredible, my dear!” the man said to his wife.
“Yes,” the children cried. “This is the best meal we’ve ever had!”
The mother smiled with great satisfaction and and gave the woman a look of thanks. She leaned nearer and said to her quietly, “It’s unfortunate you are here for only this meal.”
“Well,” said the woman with a twinkle in her eye, “I was just thinking about that. Perhaps I might stay a few days and help you around your house. It would be good to rest a while from my journey.”
The mother was overjoyed, as was the family when they heard the news.
“I can’t wait until dinner,” the girl shouted with excitement. Indeed, the woman’s proposal brought great happiness to the entire household.
As the woman loved to cook, she was happy to take over all the preparation for the family’s three daily meals. And even though her dishes tasted better than anything the family had ever experienced, and in spite of the obvious nourishment they provided, the mother still fussed over the plates and dressed them up so that they resembled what people in the village were accustomed to.
None of this behavior affected the woman, however, and within three days, the effects of her food on the family were unmistakable. They were happier. They had more energy. The children had a healthy color in their cheeks.
On the fourth day, the woman asked the parents if she might stay on for a little while longer. They were terribly relieved, of course, because they had assumed she should be leaving soon and couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the food they had eaten before she arrived.
So the woman stayed on with the family and continued to cook her incredibly tasteful and nourishing food. And with each meal, the entire family continued to grow in strength and vitality. The father was able to take on more work and the family prospered. The children outperformed others in their schoolwork and on the playground. The mother exhibited a cheery and vibrant disposition that caused everyone to ask if she had discovered the fountain of youth.
Before long, the mother even stopped checking on the meals before the woman served them. And ever so slowly, the woman stopped adding the fancy touches the villagers were accustomed to. Gradually, her dishes began looking more and more like the plain-looking food she had always prepared.
Of course, by the time she stopped adding any flourishing touches to the meals, no one in the family noticed. By that time, the father had become a partner in the local dairy and the children were busy running and playing outside at every free moment. And the mother, well, she had become a center of social attention and was busy planning an important dinner for some of the prominent families in the village.
Without realizing it, the mother had become so caught up in planning and decorating for the event that she took no notice of the actual preparation of the dinner itself. She allowed the woman to create the entire meal without suggestions or interference of any kind. In fact, she gave no thought at all to the appearance of the dishes being served until she saw the shocked looks on the faces of her guests.
Here they were, attending what they had thought was a fine dinner for village leaders, and the food they were served looked so… plain.
Eyebrows raised. Noses turned up. Throats were cleared.
No one knew quite what to do.
This food looked nothing like the exquisite fare that had made their village famous.
Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that, while everyone else was trying to decide what to do or say, the father of the family had quietly taken a fork and put a bit of food in his mouth. He closed his eyes, savored the chewing of the tasty meal, and let out a long sigh.
When he opened his eyes, everyone at the table was staring at him. He looked at them, unperturbed, and said, “It really is the most amazing dish. You must try some.”
The guests looked at each other nervously. They looked at the happy and satisfied visage of their host. They looked again at their food.
“Oh well,” one man said. “I suppose a bite can’t hurt. After all, it is the polite thing to do.”
And so, everyone sitting at the table took a fork and carefully placed a portion of the dinner into their mouths. Almost as soon as they did, they were all overcome with the same pleasure and good feelings the family had been enjoying since the woman’s arrival.
They moaned with delight. The sighed with satisfaction. They breathed deeply and ate until all the food was gone.
It was, they all admitted, the best meal any of them had ever eaten. Naturally, they wanted to know what it was and how the mother had managed to discover such recipes.
It was then than that she introduced them to the woman who had prepared the meal, the one who had brought such joy and vitality to the family.
“This is an incredibly good fortune!” the mayor of the village said. “Tonight, we have eaten a finer and more satisfying meal than anyone in the entire kingdom, even the king and queen.”
Everyone sitting at the table agreed.
Then, looking at the woman with thanks in his eyes, the mayor said, “Kind woman, would you possibly be willing to share your secret recipes with us?”
“Of course,” the woman said happily. “There is nothing better than sharing goodness with others.”
Thus began a rather hasty and marvelous transformation of the culinary tradition and life of the village. Women and men alike gathered to learn the recipes the woman used in her cooking.
And as the meals changed from a vapid presentation to simple substance, the people began to change as well.
They became hearty. They had more energy than other people in the land and became known for their industriousness. The children grew taller and became brighter. They naturally evolved into leaders and thinkers.
The became famous for many things, but most of all they became famous for the plain but nourishing food they served. So famous, in fact, that people came from all over the kingdom to taste their fare. Eventually, couriers were sent from the royal palace. And soon enough, the king and queen were eating the village’s food as well.
Years passed, and then many decades and the kingdom became one of the most powerful in the world. Yet for all its glory, it was a kingdom revered mostly for delightfully simple yet nourishing cuisine. By then, of course, no one remembered that it had once been a mostly unremarkable land with a village known for beautiful meals.
As with the village and its food, change in learning must come through substantial, internal change, and may best be introduced without immediate alterations to external appearances.
Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library