“A great artist is never poor. We have something of which other people know nothing.” ~ from Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen.
If you’ve never seen “Babette’s Feast,” you simply must.
Based on the short story by Isak Dinesen, this profound, far reaching depiction of the transformational power of food is also a glorious celebration of haute cuisine — a fine, masterful art which can be motivated by gratitude, devotion, passion, and a sincere desire to make others happy. “Babette’s Feast” won an Oscar in 1987 for Best Foreign Language Film, and has long been a cult favorite among hard core foodies. It was the first Danish film to win an Oscar; scriptwriter/director Gabriel Axel’s rendering is quite true to Dinesen’s original story, with added emphasis (lucky for us) on the preparation and consumption of Babette’s magnificent meal.
Dinesen’s story actually takes place in Berlevaag, Norway, but Axel changed the location to Jutland, Denmark, because he preferred a less picture perfect, idyllic setting.
In a remote, barren seaside village in 19th century Denmark, two elderly sisters lead ascetic lives devoted to serving the poor and upholding the teachings of their deceased father, a Dean and prophet who founded a well known Lutheran sect. Though beautiful and admired since their youth, Martine and Philippa renounce suitors and all forms of social finery. To them, the earth and its pleasures are an inconsequential illusion. Every day they dress in the same greys and blacks, subsisting on dried salt fish and thick ale-bread soup.
One day, Babette appears at their door. She is a French civil war refugee, whose husband and son had been killed in the counter-revolutionary turmoil. Forlorn and desperate, she bears a letter recommending her as a housekeeper from Achille Papin, a famous French opera singer (Philippa’s former suitor). Though the sisters’ devout lifestyle would ordinarily preclude having any servants, they take in Babette, a Roman Catholic, who, over the course of 14 years, helps to ease not only their lives, but that of the other villagers.
One fortuitous day, Babette learns she has won the lottery, ten thousand francs! She offers to cook a real French dinner to celebrate the Dean’s 100th birthday. It takes a lot of convincing to get the sisters to agree, as they are wary of the imposition and of what such a meal would entail. Frogs’ legs? Snails? Would their father approve of such decadence? Babette pleads, citing that in all her time with them, she has never asked for anything for herself. Since she has won the lottery, she wants to pay for all the provisions.
Poor Martine has nightmares, and the sisters are compelled to confess their regrettable decision to the aged congregation. The followers are very sympathetic and vow not to utter a single word about the food and drink at dinner, which is surely the devil’s sorcery.
But what a meal Babette prepares! Everything has been specially ordered from France. The villagers are astounded at the strange and exotic ingredients that arrive by boat: a live turtle! a cage full of quails! crates of wine and champagne! beautiful fruit! Engaging the help of young Erik and a coach driver, Babette lovingly prepares the feast of a lifetime, demonstrating her supreme gifts as a chef de cuisine.
Potage a la Tortue (turtle soup)
Blinis Demidoff au Caviar (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream)
Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce)
La Salade (Belgian endive with walnuts in a vinaigrette)
Les Fromages (Blue cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple)
Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits).
Rare wines are served with each course, including amontillado, Clos de Vougeot burgundy, and Veuve Clicquot champagne.
As promised, the guests refrain from commenting on the food, though their enjoyment is obvious by their gradual transformation from somber, disillusioned, and argumentative to congenial, generous, and forgiving. One guest, however, General Loewenhielm (Martine’s former suitor), freely expresses his astonishment and appreciation for every dish served. A man of the world and an attaché to Paris, the general reveals some very interesting details about the last time he had dined on such ambrosial offerings, especially the magnificient Cailles en Sarcophage!
General Loewenhielm stopped eating and sat immovable. Once more he was carried back to that dinner in Paris of which he had thought in the sledge. An incredibly recherché and palatable dish had been served there; he had asked its name from his fellow diner, Colonel Galliffet, and the Colonel had smilingly told him that it was named ‘Cailles en Sarcophage.’ He had further told him that the dish had been invented by the chef of the very café in which they were dining, a person known all over Paris as the greatest culinary genius of the age, and — most surprisingly — a woman! ‘And indeed,’ said Colonel Galliffet, ‘this woman is now turning a dinner at the Café Anglais into a kind of love affair — into a love affair of the noble and romantic category in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite or satiety! For no woman in all Paris, my young friend, would I more willingly shed my blood!’ General Loewenhielm turned to his neighbor on the left and said to him: ‘But this is Cailles en Sarcophage!’ The neighbor, who had been listening to the description of a miracle, looked at him absent-mindedly, then nodded his head and answered: ‘Yes, Yes certainly. What else would it be?’
The entire dinner scene unfolds like a splendidly understated symphony of sensual and spiritual wonder with welcome notes of subtle humor. Twelve diners at a different sort of Last Supper. Food fit for a king laid out for a pious group, who, up until then, had never seen, smelled, touched or tasted nourishment such as this. As they drink their first glasses of wine, their cheeks redden and they are rejuvenated and renewed. Old grudges are forgotten; forgiveness and conviviality reign at this communion created with Babette’s love.
As viewers, we are free to imagine the flavors and textures which passed through their lips. I love the moment when they first dip their spoons in Babette’s turtle soup and sip the clear broth. A beautiful restraint: no sound except the gentle clinking of silver against china — but their expressions suggest taste buds awakening to unforetold rapture. As Colonel Galliffet said, when you are in love with such fine cuisine, there is no distinction between the physical and spiritual.
And what of Babette? She remains in the kitchen throughout the meal. Watching her cook, a true artiste thriving in her element, is in itself soul satisfying and inspiring, because you witness her coming into herself. The preparations are tedious and elaborate. It is indeed miraculous that such a meal could emerge from the sisters’ small, rustic kitchen. There are close-ups of Babette rolling and cutting the blinis, slicing a plucked quail and placing it in its pastry shell, pouring rum over her sponge cake, arranging papaya, grapes, figs, pineapple and peaches on silver trays, slicing a wheel of blue cheese. We have already sensed that she is the aforementioned female chef at the Café Anglais, but not until after the guests have all gone home, do we learn she has spent all her lottery money for this one feast. “I am a great artist!” she tells Martine and Philippa. She says a great artist is never poor. And then she tells Philippa, who passed up her chance to become a world renown opera singer, what Achille Papin had once told her:
“Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist. Give me the chance to do my best!”
Babette chose not to return to Paris. For one evening, she was able to relive her past glory as a great chef. She sacrificed all for this one chance to perform her art, selflessly, with no thought of reward. She was able to recall the country she had lost in the most unlikely of places and circumstances.
“Babette’s Feast” is a beautiful example of the transcendent power of art. When the circle is complete — a reader for the writer, a listener for the musician, an appreciative eye for the painter, or an enthusiastic diner for the chef, then it has fulfilled its ultimate purpose. Art does not have to play out on a grand stage. Babette had cooked for the most illustrious people in Paris, yet her feast in faraway Jutland was the true miracle. Philippa refused a life on the stage, yet her singing brought deep pleasure to her bethren. The true artist always strives for excellence, gaining self fulfillment through making others happy. Babette’s cooking was an extension of her soul.
The many layers, parables, and themes of the story continue to stimulate thought and discussion. That Dinesen decided to portray a woman as the greatest chef in Europe (something that clearly would not have been possible at that time), is admirable and fascinating. There is the stark contrast between the self-denial of the Protestants vs. the self-indulgence of the Catholics, but by story’s end, there is a merging of the ascetic with the aesthetic, as all the characters are transformed. What I like most about “Babette’s Feast” is Dinesen’s statement about the role of the artist, as she awaits the opportunity to serve, albeit in lesser surroundings. That hope is what we will carry with us, the food that sustains beyond reach.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
“Babette’s Feast” was first published in Ladies Home Journal (1950), and is included in Dinesen’s collection, Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard (Random House, 1958).
The Café Anglais opened in 1802, and was frequented by royalty, aristocrats, actors and patrons of the nearby Opera House. It gained its highest gastronomic reputation after the arrival of Chef de Cuisine Adolphe Dugléré, who invented Pommes Anna.
Click here to watch excerpts from the movie, showing kitchen preparation and guests dining.
Click here for the official “Babette’s Feast” webpage, with loads of great links to reviews, essays and recipes.
“In this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”
Copyright © 2009 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup.