In Praise of Excess: The Beauty of Babette’s Feast

Another sneak peek into the Food & Drink Issue, which will be on sale at […]

Mockingbird / 4.26.17

Another sneak peek into the Food & Drink Issue, which will be on sale at the conference this weekend! Ethan’s essay is all about grace in the 1987 Danish film (and Oscar winner) Babette’s Feast.

Last winter, my wife Hannah found out she has celiac disease, the rare autoimmune disorder that means you can’t eat gluten. Contrary to the many gluten-free fads that have taken the nation by storm, people with celiac suffer a gluten intolerance that is microscopically comprehensive. The smallest gluten part per million—a dust particle in a vat of soup—can wreak havoc on her stomach.

The fact that we’re in a gluten-free heyday is both a blessing and a curse. While whole freezer aisles at Wegmans provide GF pizza crusts and English muffins and cookie dough, Hannah has to be careful even about which gluten-free labels are actually celiac-safe. It sounds crazy—it is crazy—but many “gluten-free” foods, like nuts and cheeses, are not safe for her to eat. They have been “processed in a facility that contains wheat.”

As you might guess, this is a royal pain in the ass. Shopping at the grocery store sucks no matter who you are, but now we’re reading nutrition labels in the cereal aisle, camping out around an $8 box of oat bran that doesn’t even try to look appetizing. We don’t fight about it, though. And, no, I don’t resent her for this. And, no, she definitely doesn’t resent my supremely wheaty beers in the fridge that I got at the store, that I bought for other people, or also for me…whichever.

There have, of course, been awkward moments in restaurants and over at friends’ houses. Most of the difficulty, to her surprise, has been social more than dietary. Sure, Hannah misses bagels and cheeseburgers, but the hardest part for her is sounding so bitchy. She has to ask about the fryers in the kitchen, she has to ask about cross-contamination on cutting boards. A friend once hosted a gluten-free meal for her, but forgot to think that walnuts in her salad might not be safe (I know, what an idiot!). So, Hannah embarrassingly couldn’t eat it. It wasn’t missing the food that bothered her—it was her need to be a stickler about it.

Hannah is a preschool teacher in town, and a few of her students are newly arrived refugees. One student’s family invited her over for tea, grateful for her work with their child. Out came the tea to their table, along with all sorts of gluten-heavy cakes and cookies, all laid out before her to indulge. According to their culture, they would not have anything until Hannah ate her fill.

And so, culturally speaking, with these new friends extending hospitality to you, what the hell do you do? The family spoke no English, so defining gluten sensitivity seemed unlikely. On top of that, it would have been grossly disrespectful to have declined their offer, like closing the door on their one small way of saying thanks. But at the same time, the doctor’s voice was ringing in her ears, holding up the pictures of her endoscopy…

She ate the cookie. Of course she did. Not out of some Christlike self-forgetfulness, but out of fear of offense. She came home with a stomach ache and an accusatory husband. She just said she couldn’t say no.

You may not have a wheat-eating stomach monster living in your midst, but I’m guessing you know the feeling: where the rules you live by unfortunately trump generosity.

The table is an interesting place in any home. At our house, it’s rarely used at all—we eat either at the TV or in the kitchen. But whenever a table is set for guests, it is always the meeting of two worlds. The table is an expression of generosity to guests who may do things a different way. They like “plating” their food and using stemware, you like chili bowls around the coffee table. They prefer etiquette, you prefer comfort. We all know what it feels like to be underdressed—or underwhelmed!—at another’s table. Still, your invitation is a gift. And the table, in these occasions, is the meeting place of (social) grace and (dietary) law—the gift of a meal amidst a litany of rules.

Enter Babette’s Feast, a film that, after about 83 people said I should see it when embarking on a Food & Drink Issue, I finally watched. Directed by Gabriel Axel, it won the Oscar in 1987 for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on a short story written by Karen Blixen, also known as Isak Dinesen, the story takes place in a small Scandinavian fishing village, a community led by its pastor who, with the help of his two daughters Martine and Philippa (named, the film tells us, “after Martin Luther and his friend Philipp Melanchthon”) have devoted their lives to the simple idealization of church and parish life. The community is given to hymn-singing and works of charity, but is also rigidly austere.

While Dinesen placed her story in the small Norwegian village of Berlevaag, Axel found the town too “pastel-colored” for the film. He landed instead on the subdued palette of the Jutland region of Denmark, an area beautiful in its loneliness. That loneliness is palpable in the community’s life: meals are eaten in near silence and the meals themselves (dried fish, hard bread dissolved in water) demonstrate a community more devoted to the consistency and restraint of God’s Law than the perils of pleasure. The pastor, while by no means cruel, has built a theological community that prioritizes the idea of simplicity, to the detriment of honesty. We see this most obviously in his devoted daughters, both beautiful and talented, who are each in due course pursued by men from outside the village. The suitors—who entice the daughters toward a life beyond the strictures of their village—are eventually turned away by the pastor, who makes it plain that he needs his daughters for his ministry. While we are charmed by the simplicity of this community’s spirituality, this is the first sign that such simplicity is not safe from selfish motives.

Years pass, the father dies, the loyal daughters stay, and the community seems to have festered into petty disputes and unspoken offenses. Into this situation arrives Babette Hersant (played by the beautiful Stéphane Audran), a refugee from Paris, who is taken in by the sisters as a cook and servant. Immediately upon arrival, Babette brings new life into the community. She makes small amendments to the fish-and-bread stew, amendments which are grumpily enjoyed by the village. Though she is a servant, Babette’s dignity and sense of propriety shine through. She is an unspoken leader in a community falling apart without one.

Babette’s importance comes to a head when she receives a letter from France notifying her that she’s won the lottery—an amount of money that would easily take her back to France and give her a fresh start. Given the glib community of puritans in which she’s found herself, that sounds like a no-brainer.

But she does something different. While the community prepares for the 100th birthday celebration of the dead pastor, Babette offers to throw a proper French feast in his honor. Skeptical, and a bit worried about what a “French meal” might mean morally speaking, the sisters oblige Babette, if only in gratitude for her years of service. They have no idea what this will mean, nor does the viewer. Who would expect that the last half of the film will be focused on this meal, even if it is called Babette’s Feast?

The entire palette of the film changes. Haggard brown farm carts are loaded down with colorful produce and livestock. An enormous turtle sits atop it all. Babette leads the parade into the village (villagers are aghast) with a cage full of live, chirruping quails. If the town was ever worried about this meal infecting their moral stringency, now they are freaking out. The meal—which must be watched to be appreciated—pulls out all the stops. Babette lays out the fine linen, brings in the Limoges porcelain, the silver, the Clos de Vougeot. No expense is spared, and it shows.

Despite the guests’ hilarious insistence beforehand on not enjoying themselves, the meal has its way with them. Plate after plate of the finest French cuisine (and wine!) undoes them, in the best way possible. The cailles en sarcophage, the blinis demidoff au caviar, the turtle soup, the veal quenelles. The Veuve Clicquot champagne, the Amontillado, the Hine cognac. (All of it, by the way, was made authentically on set—it cost $8,000 and 148 quails to shoot the meal. And Stéphane Audran was actually drinking the real-deal Vougeot.) Maybe they are drunk, but their faces are transfigured. Old stories are told, old wrongs brought to the surface and laughed about. Singing closes the night.

And all the while, Babette is out of view, in the kitchen. She is out of earshot of the reconciliation her gift has brought. All the praise for the lovely supper goes to the two sisters. And the supper is ended. Babette has given everything—her entire lottery winnings are spent—in the indulgence of one night’s meal.

In a Criterion interview in 2013, Gabriel Axel talked about the reception of the film. He discussed the outrage of viewers at Babette’s gift: “It didn’t matter if you were Danish or French or English or American, there was this moment of surprise.”

Axel described the story of Babette as something of a fable—a powerful story about the power of grace. Because the story’s climax is a meal—and a meal with 12 guests at that—it is impossible not to think of the Last Supper, another story wherein the head of the feast demonstrates the audacity of giving it all. Like Christ himself, there is a subdued quality to Babette. Despite nearly an hour of on-screen food prep, we never see her eat, and in a way, that makes sense—she is the feast; her only presence in the dining room is in the meal itself.

In his interview, Axel made the argument that “we all have a little bit of Babette inside of us,” and that is true. What Axel did not say is that the rest of what’s inside is the village—morally scrupulous, judgmental, and fearful. In fact, the reason food and drink works so beautifully as the engine of love in the story is because they are still topics of such powerful moral scrutiny today. On one hand, we’ve never been “foodier,” and we’ve thus never been more ready to celebrate the high significance of Babette’s art. On the other hand, we’ve never come closer to this Danish porridge parish, highly habituated to and more vigilant than ever about the gluten we consume and the GMOs we avoid. Babette’s formal cuisine may appeal to us on so many aesthetic levels, but good Lord! The butter! The time! The cost! The footprint!

This is why, as beautiful as Babette’s gift is, we have trouble making sense of the kind of excess it describes. Sure, the Christ figure giving everything away may ring true to us theologically, but the implications in human affairs beyond the dinner table are naïve at best, and terrifying at worst. In many scenarios, it is hard to even conceive what “giving it all” would even mean for us. For the friend who keeps borrowing money? For the husband who gets violent when he drinks? Using Babette’s generosity as a practical model runs us into dicey territory quick.

And so we opt in to the economical model of living. We prefer to be wise about our expenditures. For practical considerations, we save, we make sure we replenish our rainy day funds, and we are never, never so stupid as to give everything away. It’s not that we’re greedy, and it’s not that we don’t like to have (and give!) nice things—it’s just that there’s a line. A line between being hospitable and being stupid, between being generous and going broke! And so, yes, we have some qualms about the Babette Model, a few of which are:

  1. As mentioned earlier, giving all of one’s winnings. A very good, very French, and indistinguishably similar meal could have been concocted for half. Trade porcelain for china, trade Vougeot for Pinot, scrap the silver candlesticks and voilà! You’re homeward bound again! The simpletons would think nothing of it. They’ve never even seen a turtle before.
  2. Which reminds me, Babette, if you’re going all out—if you intend to devote every last franc for the Veuve Clicquot—do it for an audience that “gets it.” Isn’t this the old “pearls before swine” act that Jesus called down? Not only is this group of tight-lipped sourpusses not knowledgeable, but they have come to the table intent on rejecting you.
  3. And if you find no other alternative but to shower your talents on the unenlightened, at least have the courtesy of enlightening them, first, that this is a big deal thank-you-very-much, and second, that this is a one-time gift; otherwise you’ve just become a doormat. Give someone a gift like this, and you’d think they’d be indebted to you, grateful for you. Think again.
  4. Which is another way of saying: if you insist upon performing a single magnanimous act of grace (I discourage it), for a people bent on protesting it (again, discourage)—an act that will send you to the poor house (discourage, discourage, discourage!)—how about one with some staying power? The feast may take up half the movie, sure, but as soon as this parsonage wakes up tomorrow, hungry with a hangover, your gift is as stale as the bread. You could dig them a well, maybe? Some new fishing rods? “Teach a town to fish … ” as they say.
  5. If you’ll still hear none of that, poor Babette, please know it is not a crime to eat some yourself. To go through the whole ordeal of rendering high French cuisine in a wasteland, to torture yourself with the life you once had … at least take a bite of it. No one will fault you for enjoying the meal yourself, even if that means skimming leftovers in the kitchen.

Point made. The feast is excessive, and excessiveness doesn’t sit well with our principles of moderation. Its boundlessness offends our virtues of equanimity and prudence. From any outsider’s perspective, an act of grace is moral outrage. As with the Elder Brother in the Prodigal Son story, grace seems to satirize the rulebook. It seems to negate the importance of fairness and justice. From the outside, we argue alongside the Elder Brother, “This is not the way I’d run things.”

Of course, talking about grace and experiencing grace are two different things. Making a five-point argument against the Babette Model is a distancing maneuver, a way to conceptualize an offer that, if given to us personally, would stupefy us. Even if we’re okay, in theory, with Babette’s go-for-broke banquet, even if we’d like to be more like Babette someday, sitting at her table is always, always a difficult thing to do. Why? Why can receiving grace feel more offensive than extending it? Because grace is an intrusion. Grace moves in and takes care of your business for you, which means you didn’t handle your business all by yourself. Like the sisters’ table, now covered in fine linen and silver, in a moment of grace, the implicit hostage taken is your autonomy.

It sounds odd, but when faced with an invitation to grace, we’d much rather “stay the course” among the rocks we’re currently navigating. We’d much rather stay tight-lipped, politely declining our host. We know an assortment of excuses to disavow generosity: “That won’t be necessary, dear!” “Ah, I really shouldn’t!” “Wouldn’t want to make a habit of this!” “That’s sweet, but I’m all set!” “Don’t worry about me!”

And yet, at the same time, we crave this invitation. George Herbert talks about this inner-constraint in his poem “Love (III).” Love (God) invites the speaker in, but the speaker, “guilty of dust and sin,” is hesitant to enter. God asks the speaker if he lacks anything that would make him more comfortable entering, to which the speaker hedges,

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

The speaker, warming up to the invitation, still has his reservations:

Truth, Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

At Love’s table he cannot serve. He must be the honored guest. Herbert portrays a tenderness that is so difficult to defend in theory but is unimpeachable in personal experience. After all the balking, after exhausting the ritual of deserving and modesty, grace is the feast he’s been yearning for. It is like walking through a doorway out of the cold. It is like falling in love. In experiencing this excess of grace, the cookbook—for that moment—falls from the table. The old world, in which your pleasure was disciplined by fear, fades from view. The theoretical questions of necessity—or overconsumption, or religious nutrition—are as inconceivable as grace was moments before. You are surprised to enjoy yourself so much. You had thought this was impossible.

Herbert’s speaker, meant to be Herbert and you and me, is also uncannily similar to the most decorated guest at Babette’s table, the Swedish General Lorens Löwenhielm. While certainly the worldliest of the bunch, his route to the table has been one long failure by way of his successes. The audience meets Löwenhielm when he is just a young Lieutenant, punished by his father after another disappointing review from his superiors. He is sent to his family’s estate in the Jutlands where, against all odds, he begins courting one of the sisters, Martine. After numerous visits with diminishing returns, Lorens quits his pursuit and returns crestfallen to his old life. Hardened by failure, he vows to “look forward, not back,” thinking of nothing but his career. He promises, “Someday I will cut a brilliant figure in a brilliant world.”

And he does. He marries up, advances to General, and enjoys the spoils of his success. But, all these years later, as he looks in the mirror before returning to that same pastor’s house, looking upon the ridiculous brilliance of his uniform and monocle, he can only recite Ecclesiastes: “Vanity, vanity. All is vanity.” He casts an eye to his younger self, the lad chasing glory after being thwarted in love, and asks, “I obtained everything you dreamed of and satisfied your every ambition. But what has it profited me?” Perhaps worried about what seeing Martine might do to him, he tells his younger self, “You and I must settle accounts tonight. You must show me I made the right choice back then.”

Little does Lorens Löwenhielm know, though, that he will be the honored guest of a spectacular feast that evening. Little does he know that the feast itself will transport him from the life he feels he’s wasted. As the last course is being prepared, and Lorens Löwenhielm is given not another glass of Clos de Vougeot, but the bottle, he stands to give the best toast ever given:

Man, in his foolishness and shortsightedness, believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We all know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. The moment comes when our eyes are opened and we see and realize that grace is infinite. We need only await it in confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace makes no conditions. And see! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is also granted us. Yes, that which we rejected is granted us. Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

Indeed, here at the table, Löwenhielm has settled accounts with the man he never was. So it is with us—invited to the table of grace, where even the Rejected One is granted us. We come to the table bearing only our paltry rules and petty quarrels. We come to the table with self-righteousness and we come to the table with self-pity. We come bored, sad, irreverent, a little distracted, numb. And we are served the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Sometimes we are emotionally “there”; many times we go through the motions. But the gift is there nonetheless—we are given much more than our lives have deserved.

Lorens Löwenhielm worries he has wasted his life. We wonder the same about the two spinsters who anchor the film—Martine and Philippa—why did they stay in the land of smoked fish and dry religion? What could they have accomplished, or made use of, outside of their small world? And we wonder at the expensive waste of Babette’s feast. All this food, the formal accoutrements … even if it did change someone (or the whole village), was it worth the cost? In the final scene, Martine and Philippa ask Babette as much: “So you will be poor now forever?” They are saddened to learn that Babette has lost everything because of this one act.

Just a few months ago, Hannah received a similar question in her class. One student was celebrating a birthday. Cupcakes were brought in and, as a class of four-year-olds is wont to do, they dug in unceremoniously around the table. The kids know that there are certain things Hannah can’t eat anymore. One little girl looked up from her plate, “Are cupcakes a thing you can’t eat?” Hannah replied, “Yes, I can’t have cupcakes.” To which the student, flabbergasted, asked, “Ever? For your whole life?” “For my whole life, I won’t be able to eat those.” The girl paused sadly for a moment, seemed to remember something, and leaned in closer. She motioned Hannah forward, and whispered to her, “You know, it’s okay. When heaven comes, you’ll have whole table of them.”

Until then, like Löwenhielm, like Babette, we live in this good news: that our accounts have been settled at God’s table, and that there is no such thing as a waste. We are free to feast, and free to spend—God’s bounty is everywhere.

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9 responses to “In Praise of Excess: The Beauty of Babette’s Feast

  1. Ginger says:

    Bravo! The length of this was a feast! I watched this film years ago, but now want to revisit. Thank you!

  2. Mable says:

    Thank you! The article was a feast and a great reminder of that great film. And of grace as well, so lavish it is.

  3. Chinwe says:

    Beautiful! Thanks for this.

  4. Cullom says:

    Well done!!!

  5. Don Dinnerville says:

    Watching this with a group of friends this weekend. Can’t wait!

  6. M says:

    Exquisitely rendered and richly heartfelt – just like the movie itself. Bravo!

  7. i could not disagree with your sentiments about BABETTE’S FEAST more. first of all, you don’t sound much like a true chef — we who love to cook frequently don’t eat what we cook; we stand by, already fulfilled, while others feast on what we’ve prepared. there wasn’t a thing on Babette’s menu that she wasn’t completely familiar with — intimately so — and it was the ACT of meal prep that gave the entire feast its grace, much like the kairos time demonstrated in cooking a Sabbath meal (you DID mention the Last Supper, a Passover Seder, didn’t you?). in Middlemarch, George Eliot wrote that “[o]ne must be poor, to know the luxury of giving” — you, sir, do not sound poor enough (materially) to understand the utter joy that comes with the giving of one’s best self to others, whether they be intimates or strangers.

    IMO, BABETTE’S FEAST captures the true transcendence of artistry, the creation of beauty, the enjoyment of luxury, and the nature of expertise. i shed tears when faced with the rhapsodic feast and the effects on its participants. the lighting alone is magnificent. the subtle appearance of rosy cheeks and glistening eyes is overwhelming to me. i am always so overwhelmed by the combined effect of all these things that i never fail to shed tears — of joy — as the feast unravels, course by course, the ravages of Time and Choice and brings Peace, Acceptance, and Love to the twelve diners.

    Babette has never been poor. she was wealthy for a little, but she used her “ti tusinde francs” in the best way possible: in the luxury of giving, Babette found joy; in the luxury of receiving, the twelve diners found joy; and in the luxury of observing, we in the audience find joy, as well.

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