Might Make Things Worse…But Give “Babette’s Feast” a Taste Anyway!

Let’s face it: we’ve got ourselves a full-on feast famine. No restaurant gatherings with their familiar bustle and clinkings and clatters. No coffee joints or cocktail lounges, brewpubs or burrito joints. No concerts or dances, recitals or readings. Big bodacious birthday and anniversary and graduation celebrations: So 2019!

And then heaping insult atop all that injury of absence, we can’t even invite beloved friends and family to gather around our freaking dinner tables for a few precious hours of conviviality. It is a sad state of affairs, and if you note a playful tone underneath these complaints, rest assured it’s just a coping mechanism: I miss the hell out of all the joys the aforementioned settings entail, and long for the day when we give the coronavirus a swift kick in the ass and plunk it into the dustbin of history.

Meanwhile, we have the consolations of memory and the nearness of winsome, joyous works of art such as “Babette’s Feast,” a short story from Isak Dinesen (pen name of Danish writer Karen Blixen), originally published in 1950, then made into an elegant, gorgeously framed movie from Dinesen’s countryman, Gabriel Axel, in 1988.

Like Michelangelo, like Bach, Babette throws herself body and soul into her act of creation, faithful to her goal of making something beautiful, in whose bounty many can share.

Both works, neither of which I had previously availed myself of, popped up in the free-flow of random conversation the other day, and given what I did know about them—sumptuous food and drink, communion, beauty, feasting—I thought, “Gonna get me some o’ that.”

There is the possibility, of course, that indulging these kinds of tales at this time will only remind us all the more of everything we have lost, causing us to curl up on our couch at story’s end and weep bitter, salty tears.

I’m betting, though, that art’s ability to captivate, to seize our imaginations and circulate pulsing, warm waves of emotion and insight between our brains and hearts, eyes and ears, our gastric juices and the ever tingly skin which houses it all, will overcome any defensive desire to spare ourselves pain.

So pass the book and the remote, please, so we can accept Babette’s invitation to gather ’round her table.



The tension at the heart of “Babette’s Feast” lies in the almost absurd juxtaposition of a hyper-sensual, wholly indulgent multi-course meal prepared at great expense and effort by a fabled Parisian chef, presented to an isolated, self-denying group of elderly, dour Lutherans with long dulled taste buds whose lives in a tiny village on the barren Norwegian coast look only a few steps advanced from the mind-numbing routines of our cave-dwelling ancestors. (The tale sprawls over decades from the mid-to-late 19th century.)

Wake up, stoke the fire, fetch water and whatever food may be available, ingest, rest, eliminate, spy on neighbors, do it all again, prepare for sleep.

Our villagers add one thing that cave-dwellers lacked, however: the Bible that they build their lives around, cherry-picking almost exclusively the passages that suggest paying no mind to the cares—or pleasures—of this world, save for the charitable hearts that see them making bland fish soup and schlepping it around to the elderly and infirm.

They do so at the behest of a somewhat charismatic pastor who married late in life, lost his wife for unstated reasons, and keeps his two lovely, unmarried and pious daughters, Martine and Philippa, near at hand, severely discouraging the village’s few eligible, age-appropriate suitors from conveying anything more than longing looks in the church services they attend chiefly to get a glimpse of them.

Early in the tale, Dinesen informs us of the pastor and his tiny flock in this tiny village:

“Its members renounced the pleasures of this world, for the earth and all it held was to them but an illusion, and the true reality was the New Jerusalem toward which they were longing.”

Into this long unaltered grind of life comes Babette, fleeing the ghastliness of the Paris Commune where both her husband and son had been killed. She has been sent with hope and an introductory letter by famed French opera singer Achille Papin, who had stopped into the village for a retreat 15 years earlier and been smitten with the charms of the golden-throated sister Philippa, whose angelic singing of hymns caused Papin to immediately offer her singing lessons and urge her to accompany him to Paris, where she would surely become a sensation in the opera world.

Overwhelmed, Philippa had rebuffed him to remain true only to God, her father and her village, “untouched by the flames of this world.”

Papin has never forgotten the sisters and their kind hearts, though. Now, he hopes to put those hearts into the service of saving a life. “Babette can cook,” he adds to the last part of the letter imploring the sisters to take her in.

That turns out to be quite the understatement.

Natural sisters of charity that they are, and with their father long dead, Martine and Philippa welcome Babette into their humble abode as cook and housekeeper (she willingly works for free). But they look severely askance at any effort from her to deviate even slightly from the Ultimate Bland Norwegian Lutheran Whiter-Than-White Person’s Diet of white fish and “ale-and-bread-soup” that villagers have subsisted on since forever.

“They had mistrusted Monsieur Papin’s assertion that Babette could cook. In France, they knew, people ate frogs,” writes Dinesen. That was not the only one of her carefully crafted lines that had me erupt in laughter.

Years pass, during which Babette performs her cooking and cleaning tasks with the goodness and quiet humility of a saint—while a relative continues to renew her ticket in the French lottery. After 12 of those years, she hits a winner and rakes in the unimaginable sum of 10,000 francs. The sisters assume she will now leave them and head back to Paris.

Babette has other ideas.


As it happens, the 100th anniversary of the pastor’s birth is upcoming, and the sisters have been planning a small observance featuring the usual “very plain supper,” maybe finished off with a flourish of coffee. (Pushing the envelope for one night would hopefully sit all right with the Lord, given the occasion…) Babette implores them instead to let her take her wraps off, as it were, and cook a real, chef-worthy French meal, all of which she insists on paying for, given her sudden wealth. The sisters demur at first, then reluctantly agree.

And that leads us eventually to the feast in question, though preceding it is Babette’s first journey away from the village since her arrival, a 10-day sojourn to Paris for all the proper ingredients, followed by many more days of planning and preparation.

“Babette’s Feast” is not a comedy, though the laughs come easily, touching a deeply human nerve. While Axel takes one major liberty of moving the story location from Dinesen’s Norway to Denmark (more apropos cinematography for the story’s mood, went the explanation), he maintains great fidelity to the story’s literary qualities, with large chunks of the text surviving intact.

Where movies can sometimes go literature one better, though, is in the infinite variety of human expression that presents at a glance what words can struggle to achieve. As Babette and her hastily convened kitchen mates disembark from the boat with wares both live and inert, the sisters cast barely restrained, alarmed glances at the parade, which includes a gaggle of live quail (soon to become a heavenly “Caille en Sacrophage”) and an enormous sea turtle looking dolefully out from a cart, headed for its destiny as soup.

And mercy me: Is that wine??

And champagne—bottle upon bottle? In our Little Village of Pious Self-Denial?

The expressions on the exquisite faces of the sisters elicit both our mirth and compassion as they begin to get a hint of what they bargained for and how far they and their fellow villagers may have to stretch to accommodate such alien ways. All while fearing their God may be glaring down from above, another group of his earthly angels fallen to the seductions of incarnation and its appetites.

“Babette’s Feast” treats the villagers tenderly, beholden to great foibles as all humans are, while also seeing them through to a kind of liberation begat by the power of love. That love is in the form of Babette’s fierce devotion to the glories of food and drink, and the fellowship and communion it can inspire.

Like Michelangelo, like Bach, Babette throws herself body and soul into her act of creation, faithful to her goal of making something beautiful, in whose bounty many can share.

As the hapless villagers gather at her table to a whole different take on what it means to take in the nutrients that sustain life, their faces begin to soften and glow in the candlelight. Old resentments that had begun to resurface and poison the flock in recent years are seen anew, acknowledged in a broader frame of sudden grace. (Each sip of wine seems to enhance the feelings of renewed fellowship.)

Though they have barely a glimmer of Babette’s own form of deep religiosity as vocation and creation, their experience of the evening and its sensory and relational delights has a powerful effect. Yes, they will no doubt return to their tired white fish and tasteless glops of soup. Babette will not be establishing a 5-Star French restaurant on the village shore.

But for one night, they have tasted of the eternal, of what it means to fully indulge the senses. Who but their God, after all, could have bestowed their capacity and appreciation for these pleasures, both gastronomic and relational, as they gaze at one another under the candlelight, brought together in body and spirit by the strange fates that are always ready to unite both of those under the banner of love?

“Of what happened later in the evening, nothing definite can here be stated. None of the guests later on had any clear remembrance of it. They only knew that the rooms had been filled with a heavenly light, as if a number of small halos had blended into one glorious radiance. Taciturn old people had received the gift of tongues; ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened to it. Time itself had merged into eternity. Long after midnight the windows of the house shone like gold, and golden song flowed out into the winter air.”


Monsieur Papin tries his very best to fill Philippa with an ardor not only for song, but for following him back to Paris and the riches of opera stardom. By their lovely duet’s end, her expression tells us he will be disappointed in the extreme.


The “Babette’s Feast” short story is available en toto at http://www.stonesoup.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Babettes-Feast.pdf

The movie from which all the photos above are taken is available free at various You Tube sites and for the usual fees on other platforms.

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

3 comments to Might Make Things Worse…But Give “Babette’s Feast” a Taste Anyway!

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    Andrew, you are making me so hungry! Today I think I’ll conjure up a big pot of lively green curry for socially distant sharing. This was a delight to read in lieu of the sober news of the day.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Save some of that for me, Joan! (Freezer’s still functional, I trust?) I’ll be there one of these months!

  • Claire Spencer  says:

    Read and enjoyed Babette’s Feast. It was nice to feel inspired by a character so grateful and selfless.

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