Babette’s Feast

Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian of 13.12.12:

“…The complacent and nauseating word “foodie” is often used in connection with Gabriel Axel’s 1987 film, now rereleased in cinemas. But if you’re salivating over the food, you’re missing the point. The film is based on a short story by Danish author Karen Blixen, whose memoir Out of Africa was famously adapted for the cinema in 1985. In 19th-century Denmark, spinster sisters Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) are honouring the memory of their late father, a stern preacher, by doing good works and hosting prayer groups, having long since rejected the pleasures of love, marriage and children. Into these old women’s lives comes a mysterious Frenchwoman, Babette (Stéphane Audran), an acquaintance of a former dejected suitor, a refugee from the French civil war.

Babette agrees to work as their cook and housekeeper; and, on coming into a huge amount of money, offers to cook for them and the cantankerous old villagers a sumptuous French banquet. It is as if the portions of everyday sensuality they have refused all their lives are now to be totalled up and paid to them all at once in this remarkable feast, just when they must bid farewell to the world, with all its pleasures and vanities. Twenty-five years on, the story is still charming and beguiling.”

Julian Baggini’s Babette’s Feast is published by Bloomsbury as part of the BFI’s Film Classics Series. He wrote in The Guardian of 26th May this year:

“…when Babette takes on the role of the sisters’ cook and housekeeper, seeking sanctuary from the fall of the Paris commune in 1871, she does so without complaint, not letting on about her prior life. Because she understands and appreciates food, she is able to make the meals more enjoyable and more nutritious while actually decreasing the sisters’ grocery bill. Despite the limited ingredients available, she selects them carefully, foraging for wild herbs and plants and cooking with supreme skill. The faces of the poor who receive her meals are no longer merely grateful but filled with joy. Shafts of light warm their gloomy world every day.

Babette has a lot in common with the ideal tenzo (Zen cook), as described by the 13th-century Japanese Buddhist Dōgen. He said that the tenzo should never complain about what ingredients are available and “always handle everything with the greatest care and attention”. With the right attitude, a cook can “build great temples from ordinary greens”.

Babette brings pleasure to this corner of Jutland, but it is not a shallow hedonism. She is a very serious woman who rarely smiles. For her cooking is an art, and pleasure or happiness are not its ultimate goals. Rather, quoting the great French opera singer Achille Papin, she says: “The long cry from the heart of the artist is, ‘Give me a chance to do my very best’”…

…The film shows us how lockdown and restrictions on what we can eat are opportunities to appreciate the value of food even more. When we care about what we eat and pay more attention to it, we can achieve more with less. When we are uncomfortably aware of how lives are being taken by this wretched virus, we treasure even more the simple daily pleasures that make life worth living. And although the conviviality of the table remains almost impossible to share, helping to feed those who don’t have enough, and to feed them well, is arguably an even more important way for the love of food to connect us with the love of life and humanity.”

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