Babette’s Feast

Back in November, probably around the time I last had a chance to post anything here, I was asked to go and introduce a screening of Babette’s Feast as part of Exeter Phoenix’s Scandiland Festival. I’d last watched the film in about 2004, and remember it mainly being about getting drunk. Having watched it four times more, as part of nailing my introductory speech, I still hunk it’s mainly about getting drunk. If you haven’t seen it – rush out! Buy it! Rent it! Blag a copy! If you have seen it, well watch it again! Here’s the text (ish) of what I (sort of) said in Exeter. I waved my hands around and ad-libbed quite a lot as well.

If you haven’t seen Babette’s Feast, I’m aware there could be some spoilers here….but it must be said, that this is a film wherein the plot is flimsy at best. It’s not a criticism: plot flimsiness is part of the delight – you know what is going on, and can guess the not very twisty twists, which leaves you free to revel in the joys of the cinematography, the music and, of course, the food.

So, that very basic plot: we have two sisters, surrounded by and deeply devoted to, the dying remnants of a protestant sect, so puritan as to be laughable in the modern day. It was founded by their father, who also manipulated the sisters into never marrying, despite both having exactly one chance each. These chances form part of the precise nature of the setup, as each rejected suitor has a part to play in the eventual unfolding of the feast of the title. The film, and feast, are set in 1885, but the narrative first digresses into explaining how the sisters come to have a French maid-of-all-work, Babette. Babette fled France in 1871, at the height of the Paris commune, carried to Denmark by a nephew who served on a ship, and was taken in by the sisters on the plea of Achille Papin, rejected suitor no.1. That’s him done. She works for free, glad to have been taken in after her husband and son were killed, bringing light – literally – into the sister’s lives, and manifestly improving the monotonous and plain food they are used to both eating themselves, and preparing as their charitable duty for their ever dwindling parishioners. Her only link to the France she left behind is a lottery ticket, renewed every year by a friend in Paris. Of course, the inevitable happens, and she wins, and for the first time makes a request: to prepare a proper French Meal (note the capital letters) for the upcoming centenary of the sisters’ now dead father. They agree, and further agree, when pushed, that a) she will pay and b) she gets carte blanche to do as she will.

The provisions start arriving, carried by the oh-so-convenient naval nephew. They are fairly epic. One of the sisters has a graphic nightmare, featuring angry turtles and spilt wine splashing like blood, and she persuades the troops that they will allow Babette her moment, but that, in the spirit of Augustinian rejection of earthy pleasures, they won’t talk about the food. Fine. Obviously we, the audience, need a narrator, and we gain two: one is rejected suitor #2, a general in the Danish Army, and a man of the world, well-travelled, including to pre-Commune Paris. The other is his coachman, a pleb, who expresses less elevated views, as he samples every course in the kitchen with Babette.

The bit of the film we are interested in takes up about a third of the whole- the preparation, consumption and a bit of disposal of, a meal so French as to be almost a parody. Indeed, it’s been argued that the whole thing is less a celebration of pre-1870 French cuisine, and more a desperate yearning after an ideal of French food. Let’s face it, the concept permeates the modern world even now – how may top restaurants can you think of which don’t adhere, more or less to the tenets of les classiques? No-one would be talking about the film if Babette announced she was going to cook ‘a proper American meal….’ Anyway, everyone eats, and drinks, and drinks some more, and all the petty arguments and divisions between the various members of the sect are banished by the material pleasures of the world. They sing, embrace, snog and pontificate a bit before going off into the night reborn.. They’ve rediscovered their faith, their love of each other, and their joy in life – for now.

Critical context
The film – and its source material, a short story by Karen Blixen, which is subtly but significantly different from the film, mainly in being far less foodie – has been widely commented upon. It was written in 1952, specifically to break American market, and filmed in 1987, launching, in America at least, to recreations and adaptations of (bits of, anyway) the menu in the film. You can buy a guide to recreating the meal in your own home (don’t buy it). It’s widely seen as a religious film, and the religious undertones can’t be denied – 12 to dinner, the iconography of the wine, the fire, Babette as temptress in the nightmare scene, and the way in which everyone comes together, united and preaching. It’s also a cult film for the food. The web throws up zillions of people’s interpretations of the feast dishes, mainly redacted and revised to be less expensive and more doable for the home cook. The best discussion I’ve found is here.

I acknowledge the religious aspects, and I can also see the argument that the narrative is about people learning to communicate – up to the Feast the story is a depressing litany of individuals failing to talk to each other, even down to the sisters knowing absolutely nothing about Babette other than the very basics – whereas immediately after it everyone starts apologising and explaining, and even Babette explains a little of who she was – and is. But for me the film really is about more earthly matters. For me, the central theme is one of contrast, and not just concerning the food. There’s the General, looking like a peacock in his uniform vs the others, all drab and unconcerned. There’re his table manners vs theirs (yuk). The food and the surroundings. And, throughout the film, the contracts between production and consumption. I’d go further and say the film plays with perception at every stage. The diners see cailles en sarcophage. Babette and Erik, her hired kitchen boy for the night, see an orgy of plucking and gutting. We see both. Ultimately, the participants at the feast are uplifted, yes, but how much of that is spiritual awakening, and how much of it is because they are frankly trollied? Who hasn’t snogged an ex in a moment of wine-induced madness? Or made a long and incomprehensible speech to someone which you can barely remember the next day? There is a sly, and dark, sense of humour at work here, playing with our perceptions, and poking fun at anyone who takes it all a tad too seriously.

The setting
When the procession of Stuff arrives, specially ordered from Paris, it’s not just food. She also receives candelabra, tablecloths, fine glassware, cutlery and, trust me, a great deal of cooking equipment. In the opening two-thirds of the film we get a glimpse at Babette’s world, which seems to consist of a scullery, or at least a scullery area, and a very underequipped – yet surprisingly modern in some ways – kitchen. She has a small coal fired range. (I’d assume this was installed after the father’s time – you wouldn’t expect it in the 1830s in an isolated village, and frankly not necessarily in the 1880s, given the context, but hey.) She has no running water, smallish pans, but copper rather than cast iron, which again may be a level of artistic licence. We see her cooking ale bread and dried fish, the staple diet of the sisters, and then improving upon it, to the point that when she’s absent planning for the feast, one man throws down his spoon in disgust. She forages for herbs, and barters for the best produce. But we can straight away see that she must be importing EVERYTHING for the feast!

The camera rather lovingly dwells on the ingredients – heaps of fruit and veg, live quails, the terrifying turtle, and a calf’s head which appears with a rather alarming frequency in many different guises, and is presumably intended for stock, though I suspect may be more intended for shock. We think we are seeing every stage of the banquet – but we’re not. Instructions for turtle soup in contemporary cookbooks make it quite clear that the thing needs its throat slitting, the blood draining, the shell hacking off….this isn’t the work of one day, despite the impression given in the film.

The food
The menu is classic French – sort of. We start with Turtle Soup, the corporate dish of the nineteenth century. It was expensive, time consuming to prepare, took oodles of space and physical effort, and came to serve as a metaphor for posher than posh (and new money). Just flick through the Punch archive to see what I mean. Babette seems to prepare the soup in a day. I’m dubious.

The entree is Blinis Demidoff. They don’t exist in the classic French repertoire, though the terms do exist separately. Babette uses a blini pan, so yet more specialist equipment (I can only assume she ordered a while battery of DIY equipment to tackle the turtle). The raw onions are more 1952 than 1871, and usually fish was served in the second course, but it enables us to see the connections Babette has with the wider world; connections the sisters totally lack.

Next up, the releve. This one has been widely discussed and philosophised over. It’s Cailles en sarcophage, clearly a death metaphor, and indication of that sly sense of humour I mentioned, given the average age of the diners. Here today, in a coffin tomorrow. Incidentally, the table manners here are hilarious: just watch as the parishioners’ resistance to the food crumbles, as they sneak peaks at the General sucking the brains out the quail skulls…’s served with Clos Vougeot 1845, and this is the point where we start to see the walls fall apart. They are now THREE GLASSES IN! This is also the course at which the General declares it can only be the cook at the Café Anglaise who made these as it was her signature dish – but he seeks no more info. In some ways this is the culmination of the feast – you get visceral eating, dark flavours, and death on the table.

After this, everything else is decoration. There’s imported cheese and fruit, served before the dessert, as was the norm. At some point they consume more booze, in the shape of a rhum baba, in an imported mould. The whole thing gets a tad mixed up around now. Dessert is hothoused fruit, a pineapple – still a symbol of hospitality in the nineteenth century, and masculine coffee with yet MORE booze, in the form of cognac.

The film ends with another contrast – Babette, exhausted, sitting amidst piles of washing up and leftovers, finally tasting her feast and savouring the wine in a way in which very few of the diners did – even the General seemed determined to get pissed.

Babette could never have existed. The French simply did not have women cooking in restaurants at that level. The Café Anglaise existed, but it has a male chef. The film wouldn’t work if she were a man though – you can’t really see Monsieur Le Chef being welcomed into the home of two spinsters in a rural Danish village. In the film, the fact that she is a woman is remarked upon. Her cooking is made more resplendent by the fact she’s not a man. It’s a facet of the film (and book) still resonant today. Say chef, and I bet you think of a man in starched whites. Say cook, and you’ll probably have an image of a cheery woman in a floral apron at home.

The final contrast is in the sisters’ own perceptions – and through that, ours. What seems to be the ultimate sacrifice is turned on its head. When the sisters suggest they can’t believe Babette did all of that for them, her reply is that she did it for herself. Babette sees herself as the ultimate artist, and, reveals herself to be just as blinkered and unmoving as any of the religiously-minded characters. However, like any of us who practice art through cooking, we know that it is both a tremendous act of giving, but, at its best, (and sometime secretly in case anyone guesses what we’re up to), a tremendous act of fun.

Further reading
-Priscilla Parkhurst-Fergusson (2004) Accounting for Taste (And online here)

-Michael Shapiro (1991) Political economy and mimetic desire: A postmodernist reading of ‘Babette’s feast’, History of European Ideas Vol.13(3), pp.239-251

-Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) (1953) Babette’s Feast (various editions, inc Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, 2004)