This weekend was a long one so I indulged in another foreign foodie film called Babette's Feast. This one was based on a story by Karen Blixen (whose home we visited while we were in Kenya!) and it is most definitely a slow starter. But a story that strives to show transcendence has to be set up properly, no?
The story is set in Denmark on the remote coast of Jutland. In the tiny village, there is a priest with a small but devoted following. His two beautiful daughters are his pride and joy and catch they eye of all the young men in the countryside for miles around. Though both have passionate suitors, neither one ever marries.
Years pass. The sisters have become old women, their father long dead. One stormy night, there is pounding on their door. A bedraggled woman enters with a letter from one of the sister's former suitors. It explains that this woman is Babette, a refugee from the French Revolution who has lost her son and husband. Would they please be kind enough to employ her? The sisters cannot afford to hire a servant, but Babette begs them to let her cook for them in exchange for room and board.
The sisters have always eaten a diet of salted cod and a gloppy brown bread soup, but with Babette in charge of their kitchen, suddenly their meals taste better, and thanks to Babette's ruthless bargaining, they are actually saving money!
One day, a letter arrives from Paris. Babette has won 10,000 Francs! The sisters assume she will return to Paris immediately, but she asks that they first allow her to cook them a real French dinner as an act of gratitude. The evening would also celebrate their beloved Father's 100th birthday. The sisters reluctantly agree. Babette goes away for a few days to personally see to the preparations.
When she returns, the entire town is shocked to see the parade of goods being carried up the shore from the boat. A crate full of twittering quails, a live turtle, heavy boxes of wine, blocks of ice, sacks and crates of exotic fare are all laboriously carried up the cliffs and into the Sisters' home.
The villagers are astonished at the lavish display, and because of their puritanical austerity, begin to worry that enjoying the meal would be a sinful show of gluttony, especially on a day meant to honor their strict former leader. They make a pact to eat the food, but not enjoy it and to not pass comment on any of it.
Until the third act, the movie moves glacially slow. This is by design. It shows us how simple life in the village is. We see how little thought they give to their physical bodies, choosing instead a life of piety that leaves them a little grumpy and short with one another. The sisters, though quite serene, have never known the joys of romantic love or married life. They have always avoided earthly pleasures. The first two thirds of the movie are all grey, bleak, barren, as devoid of color as if bleached by the salty Jutland winds.
But now comes Babette's banquet. For three days, she makes preparations, enlisting the help of a tow headed boy to help with plucking, skinning and making stocks. We see Babette carefully preparing each course with love and artistry, in complete command of an army of simmering copper pots, in a dramatic fog of steam and flame.
At last comes the night of the dinner. Nothing has been spared. The table is set in gloriously fine linen, with a different pieces of crystal for each of the many wines to be opened and generously poured. The somber group is seated at the table. The villagers are all in black with stiff white lace collars. Only one member of the group wears color. A general and another of the sister's former suitors, he is resplendent in a Prussian Blue wool coat with brass buttons and a splash of red satin.
The decadent feast begins. The first course is turtle soup, as rich as it is rare. Next, blinis laden with clouds of white sour cream and heaped with glittering black caviar. Then, a course of delicate quails wrapped in a blanket of lighter than air pastry and smothered in a deviously rich brown sauce. A crisp salad of endives, grapes and walnuts is followed by a course of cheese, a gorgeous almond cake decorated with marzipan roses and filled with liquer. The final touch is an outrageous platter of exotic fruits the likes of which the Jutlanders have never even imagined; dramatic orange pink papaya with it's trove of black seeds, a spiky pineapple, round green and purple grapes piled like jewels, and figs so ripe that they spill juice at the slightest touch.
Through it all, they do their best not to comment on the decadence that surrounds them. Only one member of the party has not taken the vow of silence about the food-the general. He alone truly understands and appreciates the sumptuous nature of the banquet. With shock, he recognizes the fine quality of the wine and food set before them. He exclaims upon it, and is befuddled when his fellow diners do not join in his joy. But he does not allow their silence to stop him from savoring the meal or from commenting on it. His rapturous descriptions of the special meal they are sharing finally weaken the resolve of the others at the table. Slowly the flush of pleasure creeps onto their faces as they savor each dish and sip and taste the beautiful wines. Though they never praise the food with their lips, their faces give away their joy.
At this climactic moment, the General rises to offer this 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 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 one's eyes are opened, and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We only need 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 have rejected. For mercy and truth are met together. And righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."
After the meal, Babette reveals a secret that makes the sisters appreciate the meal even more. Watch the movie to enjoy the secret for yourself.
This film explored ideas I hold very dear, that I am striving to understand. For one, there is the idea that the universe is capable of a bounty far beyond our human comprehension. Then, there is the idea that quality is worth sacrifice and patience because transcendence takes time. But most of all, as Babette says, "An artist is never poor."
She is never poor because she has the jewel of her skill and talent. She is never poor because she is engaged in the constant renewal of creation. This is not just romantic thinking- it rings deeply true for me.