For those of the Christian faith, this week is holy week. It began with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter. Maundy Thursday is the day that commemorates Christ celebrating the last supper with his disciples. It may sound strange to some, but a film I love to watch on Maundy Thursday is Babette’s Feast.
Directed by Gabriel Axel, the movie is a gorgeous tale based on the story by Isak Dinesen. The film begins with the narrator telling us, like a storyteller reading us a fable, “In this remote spot there once lived two sisters who were both past the first flush of youth. They had been christened Martina and Philippa after Martin Luther and his friend Philipp Melanchthon. They spent all their time and almost all their small income on good works.”
The remote spot is a small village on the remote coast of Jutland in 19th century Denmark. The two sisters are pious women Martine (named after Martin Luther) and Philippa (named after Luther’s friend Phillip Melanchthon) who equate piety with austerity and without gaiety. Their father, a pastor over an austere sect, has passed and the two sisters oversee a dying congregation.
Then Babette Hersant, a refugee, shows up on their door with a letter from Achille Papin, recommending her as a housekeeper to the two sisters. Martine and Philippa inform Babette that they cannot afford to pay her, but she offers to work for free. Though a talented chef, Babette fixes their ascetic, abstemious meals without complaint, though improving on them each time. It’s only after she discovers that she has won the lottery (10,000 francs) that Babette tells the sisters that, using her money, she is going to prepare them a lavish French feast.
Most films that deal with such scrumptious feasts, tend to focus on the sexual or sensual pleasures of food (Chocolat or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman). Another film that is similar in tale, is Big Night about two immigrant Italian brothers who are going to have to close their restaurant because Primo, the brother who is the chef, refuses to make “Americanized” Italian dishes. Before closing, they spend their entire savings to have one last big night with their friends to enjoy a deliciously prepared magnificent meal that centers around a timballo.
Big Night and Babette’s Feast understand what M.F.K. Fisher, one of the preeminent American writers on food, wrote in the Gastronomical Me, “Like most humans, I am hungry…our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”
Those eating the meals prepared by Babette or Primo taste the love that went into the preparation of the meal. It was more than just mere food to be quickly devoured, but was meant to be savored, tasted, appreciated, delighted in and experienced.
Both Primo and Babette, through their culinary talents are asking, as Isak Dinesen wrote in her story, “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” Their food is not just a talent or skill, but a gift they are offering up to those who they love.
Christ’s ministry most often took place around a table, sharing a meal, and enjoying the company of those he was with. To break bread with someone, in his culture, was to accept them. Jesus also revealed his love by sharing a last supper with his disciples (his closest friends) on the night before he died. His last act before death and resurrection was to share in a meal. Quoting M.F.K. Fisher again, “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”
This is what I love about the story and the film adaptation of Babette’s Feast, that at the very heart of it is grace. As Dinesen writes in one of my favorite passages from the story:
Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!
Babette sacrifices of herself, in service, and by giving up her fortune to share in what she loves most (preparing French cuisine) for the two sisters who took her in. From her sacrifice comes transformation (in both the sisters and those who partake in the feast itself). There is forgiveness, reconciliation and love. Feasting in Babette’s Feast is more than mere pleasure, it is an act of spiritual joy. It is how I imagine all the meals that Christ shared with others to be.
This feast requires one to be present: in all of one’s senses. To see the beauty and the effort required to make this sumptuous meal, but also to enjoy the tastes and textures: the spices, the sautees, the sauces the fragrance, and the colors which counteract the dull blacks and grays that have been throughout most of the film. Grace is not bleak or dreary but is a delight, shared laughter and conversation, appreciation and gratitude and gratefulness.
Like the meals Christ shared, Babette’s meal is a form of connection and community. To quote from Dinesen’s story, “Our longing is our pledge, and blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home.” Babette has not returned to France, but she has returned to the food she grew up with and loves deeply. She is offering her food as a way of offering herself, her home to these sisters, the congregation, and to people from their past. Just as Jesus said, “This is my body, broken for you.”
This is a feast for both body and soul.
Cooking, in the hands of Babette, is a holy ritual. She is making a new creation out of the ingredients she is working with. She is raising simple elements into dishes that are sophisticated, transcendent and artistic in no less a manner than the artisans did in building the Temple. Babette’s feast is a reminder of Israel with all of its feast days and rituals.
In the film, the character of General Lorenz Lowenheilm says, “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.”
The story itself is born out of Dinesen’s own life. After the suicide of her father, her grandmother and her aunts came to take care of the family. As a ten-year-old girl, who was close to her father, she watched as women loved and tended to each other. She drew on this experience in writing Babette’s Feast.
Martine and Philippa, after the meal, discover that Babette is surrounded by all of the dirty dishes. The two sisters than her for the meal and Babette informs them that she had been a chef in a famous French restaurant in Paris. They ask if she plans to return now that she has the money to. “No,” she informs them, “the people who would appreciate my talents are now gone from Paris. I have no desire to return.” Then she lets them know that she spent all of her money on this meal. Overcome by hearing this, the two sisters are filled with compassion and embrace her. When they express sadness as her poverty, Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.” Philippa assures her that her art is not lost for in paradise she will be all that God has meant her to be.
Babette’s feast conjures up a spiritual sense of shalom (or wholeness or well-being). The meal was more than mere transaction, but the transformation that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation among people whose pasts had kept them from such healing. This is not about consumption but about creation and how creation is, ultimately, an act of renewal. Like Christ, Babette’s feast is a sacrificial act meant to bring about this grace and mercy, of letting go of past sins and grudges.
Is this not a beautiful reflection of the Eucharist table?
That is why re-watching Babette’s Feast has become a tradition for me every Maunday Thursday. Like communion, it is done in remembrance of Christ.