The Transcendent Properties of Food

Stephane Audran in "Babette's Feast"

Film Friday – Summer Food Series

Over the years I have organized several “Films about Food” series.  There are many excellent food movies from all over the world, including Tampopo, Mostly Martha, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.  My favorite is Babette’s Feast.

This Danish winner of the Foreign Film Oscar in 1987 shows a sumptuous banquet descending upon a querulous community like an act of grace, thereby allowing the spirit to flow again.  In other words, it’s a good film to watch these days when our own communities are troubled and having difficulty coming together.

The film features two aging sisters who are maintaining a religious community in rural Denmark that their father founded years before.  When they were young and beautiful, the two women chose to stay with the minister rather than enjoy potentially glamorous lives, one as a wife in high society, the other as an opera singer.  Now the religious community is aging (like many mainstream Protestant churches) and has lost touch with the founder’s vision of Christian simplicity and love.  Despite the sisters’ best efforts, the congregation is bogged down in doctrinal disputes and old quarrels.

Into this community steps Babette, a one-time chef in Paris before she had to flee when her husband and son were killed in the 1871 Paris commune.  The sisters’ hospitality functions as a refuge for Babette, who returns the favor with her cooking skills.  Then one day she learns that she has won 10,000 francs in the French lottery.  With it she decides to prepare a feast for the community on the 100th anniversary of their founder’s birth.

The community is suspicious since the feast seems an extravagance and perhaps even a diabolic temptation.  Furthermore, it is served up by a Catholic. Nevertheless, they choose to participate but are determined not to enjoy themselves.  By the end of the evening, however, the food works its magic.  They move beyond their grudges and rivalries and recall their founder’s vision.

It just so happens that the old lover of one of the sisters—he who had proposed marriage—has returned seeking refuge from a life that currently feels barren.  He rediscovers that the love he had for Martine, and that she had for him, is still alive, even though it will never be consummated.  And it’s fine that it won’t be consummated. The feast opens his eyes to the generosity of the universe, and at the end of the meal he gives the following speech:

Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us.

And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

Because Babette has won the lottery, the sisters expect her now to return to France.  They learn, however, that she has spent every last penny on the feast.  The meal was simultaneously a selfless sacrifice and an offering of gratitude.

Babette’s Feast captures well the spirit of author Isak Dinesen, whose life is the subject of the film Out of Africa. I have to say that Dinesen is one of those authors that I can only read in small doses. She’s a rich cake where a little goes a long way. But that’s all right.  She reminds us that people have a depth and a resonance that allow them to transcend their surroundings.

If you haven’t seen the film, make an effort to see it.  If you have, watch it again. It reminds us that there is more to life than material comfort and that, when we think we suffer disappointments, we may be focusing on the wrong things.  Food provided to us through love and consumed in community can ground us in what really matters.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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