So, I am doing something fun this week. I am reviewing a movie that I have never seen before, Babette’s Feast, and also talking about my recent foray into cooking at home — let’s call that Chad’s Feast.
A movie that is built around food as a metaphor for spiritual development — what’s not to like?
Babette’s Feast is a 1987 Danish film (English subtitles) that focuses on the lives of two sisters named Martina and Philippa (after two leading Protestants, naturally) who live in a deeply religious community that was once led by their father, who has now passed away. In their sunset years, they care for an aging congregation in a grey village on the coast of Jutland.
The film opens with the sisters singing hymns and feeding the elderly and sick with the help of their servant, Babette. In a series of flashbacks, we see the sisters’ young lives as suitors are rebuffed in favor of their pious faith. Some of the courting scenes reminded me painfully of Pride and Prejudice. In fact, I was doing doing research in my Danish-English dictionary so I could recognize the words for “Oh, Mr. Darcy” just in case. The film’s incorporation of a number of hymns with especially relevant themes, like God’s provision and the hope of a heavenly paradise, is brilliant in not only setting the tone, but also in foreshadowing the profound experience at the end of the film.
The elderly congregants have begun to quarrel as they approach the 100th birthday of their founder when a letter from Paris arrives. Babette discovers that she has won 10,000 francs in the lottery, and to celebrate, she puts on an elaborate feast. She assembles the best ingredients from France while drawing the suspicion of the community as she brings in rare delicacies like a giant turtle and a cage full of quail. Not wanting to appear worldly or to make themselves susceptible to witchcraft, the community vows to eat the meal, but not to speak about the food or drink as they eat. As course after course of the most amazing food they have ever tasted is placed before them, they try desperately not to mention the food. Only the general, a guest who is not in on the agreement to ignore the food, is able to vocalize his pleasure with the stunning feast.
As the meal continues, the quarrels between those around the table are forgotten, and old loves are rediscovered. The feast was, in the words of the general, “a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.” Only in the end do the sisters realize the extent of Babette’s sacrifice, as she has spent her entire fortune on the meal she prepared for them, and is once again penniless.
The interaction between the sisters was portrayed skillfully. They complete each other’s sentences just as you would expect them to do after living together for so many years. The film perfectly contrasted the grey, drab hues of the sisters’ village with the bright colors of the feast. The story was full of symbol, nuance and truth. I can’t believe that I waited this long to see this masterpiece, but I now understand why so many people I respect love this film so dearly.
The bigger message of the film, as highlighted in the Eucharistic banquet at the climax, is that sometimes pleasure and beauty can be sacrificial ends in themselves. Appreciating and enjoying beauty can be just as important to one’s growth as self-denial and sacrifice. Truth is truth, no matter how it chooses to reveal itself.
I have spent most of my adult life with a severe aversion to cooking. I just never seemed to be able to get it right. I couldn’t cook steak without getting it tough and rubbery; I couldn’t stir fry vegetables without producing a mushy, nasty mess. I was inspired, though, by a recipe that I heard about on NPR. It is a recipe for a Chilean dal. Yes, dal, the classic South Asian lentil dish, but with a South American twist.
The first time I decided to make this dal, I went to my local Sprouts and bought all of the ingredients. I took the onions, tomatoes and cilantro and dutifully put them in the refrigerator, but sadly never got around to making anything. Slowly the tomatoes went bad, the potatoes rotted in the pantry, and the cilantro turned into a nasty goo that reminded me of rancid baby food peas.
I decided to give myself another chance. I bought another round of ingredients, and this time I made the dish while two of my dear friends were at yoga class. As the final product simmered on the stove, I took a taste. It seemed pretty good to me, but I have a knack for not being able to appropriately judge my own creations. I let myself presume that it was a decent meal, and moved on. Then, the yoga boys came home. They smelled the spicy tomato aroma and just started digging in to the pan with the first spoons they could get their hands on until they were scraping the nonstick coating off the bottom. Apparently I had gotten the flavor of the dish just right, even though I had no idea if anyone else would even find it edible.
Sure, it was not turtle soup imported from Paris, but it was a reminder of how food can bring the best out of us and remind us why we matter so much to each other.