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Accounting for TasteThe Triumph of French Cuisine
By Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2006 Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAmong the many films that center on food at the end of the twentieth century, Babette's Feast (Babettes Gaestebud) stands out for its reach and for the subtlety of its sensuality. For this film depicts far more than food and foodways; it shows more than the sensuality of food in our lives. Paradoxically, this Danish film tells an exemplary tale of French cuisine. Its portrayal of a French cook far from France evokes the French culinary landscape even more than the Danish countryside where it is set.
Surely it is appropriate that the cinema supply the iconic culinary text of the twentieth century. Film captures, as a photograph cannot, the interactive process that culinary art requires. More immediately than print and like cuisine itself, film conveys a sensory awareness that embraces the viewer as the more intellectual medium cannot. Just as the written recipe can only suggest the sensory, so words inevitably fail to convey the comprehensive, all-enveloping sensuality of taste. The immediacy achieved by the moving narrative raises Babette's Feast to iconic status well above the short story by Isak Dinesen from which it is drawn. Through itsexploitation of the sensory, the film transforms a "story from the human heart," as Dinesen puts it in the narrative frame of the original story, into an emblem of French culinary culture.
Brought to the screen in 1987 by the Danish director Gabriel Axel, Babette's Feast arguably inaugurated what the past twenty-five years or so have consecrated as a veritable cinematic genre-the food film. From the exuberantly sexual foreplay of the couple devouring a turkey leg in Tom Jones (1963) to the Taiwanese Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and the fluffy paean to the senses, Chocolat (2000), with many films in between, the food film has become a staple in the cinematic larder, another sign of the salience of food in the larger culture today. We all have our favorite from this lengthy roster. Indeed, based on the sheer number of food films, it would seem that just about every group that lays claim to a cuisine now has a film to tell the world about it.
Babette's Feast shares many characteristics with other food films. First and foremost, it lovingly details the many pleasures of food, though unlike many others it does not equate the sensory with the sexual. More than others, however, and conspicuously more than Isak Dinesen's short story, it celebrates the senses. It invests cuisine-very pointedly French cuisine-with incomparable transformative powers. The spectacular repast that crowns the film conjures up a vision of spiritual well-being created by the transcendent artistry of a chef who sacrifices all for her art and, through that art, recreates her country. This restitution of place and resurrection of time makes the most powerful case yet for the intimate drama of culinary metamorphosis.
Babette's Feast takes place in a remote seaside village in Jutland, the site of an especially strict Lutheran sect. The beautiful young daughters of the founder of the sect renounce suitors from the outside world who would have taken them away from their father, their village, and their religion. Martine (named for Martin Luther) rejects an aristocratic, worldly army officer, and Philippa (named for Luther's friend Phillip Melancton) turns down the offer of Achille Papin, a visiting French opera star, to sing in Paris, where he promises to make her a star. Years pass; neither sister marries. The two devote their lives to good works and keeping their now-dead father's spirit alive.
One evening some thirty-five years later, in September 1871, in the midst of a driving rainstorm, a bedraggled and visibly exhausted woman appears on the doorstep of the two sisters, who are now in late middle age. The stranger bears a letter of introduction from Achille Papin, who remembers his idyll in rural Denmark as a very special, because so very different, time and place in his life. He asks the sisters to take in the woman, a refugee from the civil war raging in Paris in which her husband and son were both brutally killed "like rats." She herself, his letters informs them, barely escaped with her life. Babette Hersant has lost her family, her country, her language, and, as it turns out, her art. She is beaten, desolate, and desperate to be taken in.
Such is the simplicity of the sisters' life that they scarcely know what to do with a servant, even one who will work for no wages. Nevertheless, they take her in, and Babette-played by the luminous Stiphane Audran-soon becomes indispensable to them and to those whom they succor. The slight but significant touches that she brings to the daily fare make the food more palatable-and even, in a term that seems foreign to this strict Protestant sect, pleasurable. Babette insists on the quality of foodstuffs as she bargains in rudimentary but effective Danish with the grocer and the fishmonger, both of whom she astounds with her insistence on superior vegetables and absolutely fresh fish. It is clear that no one else gives such care to the quality of material ingredients or makes use of the herbs that she gathers in the fields overlooking the sea and hangs in her kitchen.
When Babette leaves for a time and the sisters return to their task of dispensing their own unappetizingly brown ale-bread soup to the poor, one old man testily throws his spoon down when served the meal that had been perfectly acceptable before Babette's arrival. Once good taste is learned, there is no return. Another ends his prayers with thanks to God for sending Babette. The sisters sense rather than actually know that food tastes better, although they know for sure that their financial state has greatly improved since this foreigner came to them. Into this world disdainful of earthly delights, Babette subtly presses claims for the life around us. In a telling aesthetic gesture that sets her apart from the rest of the villagers, she washes the windows of the cottage to let the light and beauty of the outside world into the dark interior.
Fourteen years pass. The sisters make plans to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of their father's birth. This celebration comes at a crucial moment: like many other sects after the loss of a charismatic founder, the disciples have fallen to squabbling and backbiting. The sisters hope that the simple repast that they envision will make whole what time and travail have sundered and thus will restore the spiritual harmony of their early church. At this point, Babette receives a letter from France with the news that she has won ten thousand francs in the state lottery. A child of misfortune, she has quite suddenly been made fortunate. After much thought, she requests permission to prepare the commemorative feast for the sisters and the community of believers, but she wants to do so on her own terms, as a "real French dinner." She also insists on paying for it. The sisters reluctantly grant her request. They assume that this will be the last meal she will make for them before she returns to France a rich woman. After a journey to marshal supplies that she has ordered from France, Babette returns at the head of a great procession of foodstuffs, including gleaming candelabra and silverware, elegant china and table linens, cases of wine, a calf's head, several quails in a cage, and an enormous live turtle that gives Martine nightmares.
Horrified at what they fear will turn into a "witches' Sabbath," the sisters warn the community, begging forgiveness in advance. Like the early Christian martyrs, they determine to meet the presence of evil with resignation, in silence, with their minds on heaven, not earth. No one will think about the food. "It will be as if we never had the sense of taste," says one of the disciples. The sisters' apprehension only increases as Babette sets about preparing the meal. "Surely that isn't wine?" Martine asks in fear and trembling. "No, that isn't 'wine,'" Babette replies indignantly. "It's Clos de Vougeot 1845," the strange name only enhancing Martine and Philippa's sense of foreboding. With the help of a young boy engaged for the occasion, Babette slaughters, cooks, sifts, bakes, stirs, irons, polishes, burnishes. The dinner brings an unexpected guest, Lorens Loewenhielm, the army officer and suitor of Martine from years before, who is now a general. As before, he is visiting his aunt nearby and will accompany her to the celebratory dinner.
The general is an essential figure for the culinary narrative, because he knows, as the others do not, what he is eating. The bubbly drink that one disciple reckons a kind of lemonade, he recognizes as a Veuve Cliquot 1860. More and more astounded as the meal proceeds, Loewenhielm comes to the realization that the only place that could have produced such a repast was the renowned Cafi Anglais in Paris whose signature dishes included the very "entombed quail" (cailles en sarcophage) that they are now consuming. As a young man posted to Paris, he had been honored at a memorable dinner at the very place. In the course of that dinner, his host, General Galliffet, recounted the surprising story of the extraordinary chef of this superb restaurant who, "quite exceptionally," was a woman. This incomparable chef had the great gift of transforming a dinner into "a kind of love affair" that "made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite." The entombed quail were her invention.
General Loewenhielm never seeks to learn how this dish, which he determines to be absolutely authentic, has appeared in such an unlikely venue. Under the circumstances, his silence is appropriate: explanation is neither necessary nor significant. Like the other guests, Loewenhielm accepts this manna from heaven as a sign of grace to be received without question and with boundless gratitude. The twelve at table, with Babette in the kitchen preparing the transformative red wine and bread, make this pointedly a last supper. Even the quail in their tombs suit a dinner where death is so present. The guests are themselves very elderly, and their thoughts turn frequently to the fate that awaits them in the hereafter, the punishments that will be meted out for past sins. The hymn that Philippa sings after dinner poignantly invokes the end of life, when all will be reconciled: "The sand in our hourglass will soon run out / The day is conquered by the night / The glories of the world are ending / So brief their day, so swift their flight / God, let thy brightness ever shine / Admit us to Thy mercy divine."
Unmistakably, that reconciliation has already occurred around the dinner table, where Babette has indeed worked magic. Her feast has renewed friendships, restored love, and revived the harmony of the community. No one, in the end, can ignore the transcendent power of taste correctly rendered. General Loewenhielm comes to the realization that "in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible." The other guests become just tipsy enough to open themselves, quite against their will, to the wonder of the material world and to corporeal pleasure. One guest rejects the water that is served late in the dinner, reaching avidly instead for the wine that she first tasted with such visible foreboding. Smiles on the erstwhile dour faces translate an inner well-being, the contentment of simply being. Poignantly, the departing congregants join hands to sing one final hymn as they dance in a circle under the stars in a crystal clear sky: "The clock strikes and time goes by: / Eternity is nigh. / Let us use this time to try / To serve the Lord with heart and mind. / So that our true home we shall find. / So that our true home we shall find." It is, after all, the Christmas season, and the birth of their founder on December 15th precedes by only a few days the birth of their Savior.
Babette remains in the kitchen during the entire dinner. The serving boy moves between the dining room and the kitchen as he follows Babette's careful instructions about what and how much to serve whom in which glass. The camera cuts back and forth between these two rooms, dwelling lovingly on close-ups of the dishes being prepared and being served, the wine poured and sipped. In other words, the cinematic observer sees everything in the harmony of production and consumption. Babette is joined in the kitchen by one guest, the general's coach driver, to whom she serves every dish. In an addition that is at once authentic and comic, his frequently voiced response-"that's good"-expresses the deep satisfaction that the vow of silence will not allow the other guests to express. Only toward the end of the meal does Babette allow herself to savor the magnificent old burgundy that she has dispensed so prodigally. Only at the very end does she eat the incomparable meal that she has prepared (even then she remains standing). When the guests leave, Martine and Philippa come to the kitchen to compliment her on the meal and prepare to say good-bye. Babette quietly reveals that she was the head chef at the Cafi Anglais to whose artistry the general paid such eloquent testimony.
She also stuns her employers in another way: she will not return to France-ever. There is no place for her there; everyone dear to her has died, the world she knew has disappeared. Besides, she has no money. The sisters are dumbfounded to learn that Babette spent her entire lottery winnings on the dinner-just what a dinner for twelve would cost at the Cafi Anglais, she states matter-of-factly. The sisters are taken aback at her sacrifice. "It was not just for you," Babette responds. She has proven her powers, performed her art. She has made her guests happy just as she had at the Cafi Anglais. "That's what Papin knew"-an artist himself, the opera singer recognized their kinship, their common pursuit of artistic excellence, their fulfillment in bringing pleasure. She subscribes to Papin's pronouncement that "Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best." Babette has had a last chance to give of her very best, so that, contrary to what Martine fears, she cannot be poor: "an artist is never poor." For the first time, Philippa embraces her servant in an act of love that at once acknowledges the claims of the artist and her right to sacrifice. Babette will reap one final reward. In this film that balances visions of the hereafter with sights of the here and now, Philippa, the other artist as singer, admits Babette to the paradise of the righteous. Though a Catholic-Papist, in the sisters' lexicon-Babette will dwell in the New Jerusalem promised in the opening hymn and toward which the disciples yearn.
Excerpted from Accounting for Taste by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson Copyright © 2006 by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. Excerpted by permission.
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