Babette’s Feast

For a recent holiday dinner with my in-laws, I was asked to bring a dessert.  I volunteered to bring apple pie.  Now, I don’t even like apple pie, but I like sour cream apple pie, and I’ve made it a holiday tradition for the last ten years or so to make this pie on Thanksgiving and Christmas for my immediate family.  And when I get to share it with extended family, that seems like a fun opportunity.

However, only two pieces of my sour cream apple pie (with a homemade crust) were eaten at this family dinner.  My husband ate one, and my oldest daughter ate the other.  My mother-in-law tried a small sliver, but then we got busy talking about the family history book she had made for everybody, so I don’t think she ended up eating any dessert.

Anyway, I went home a little hurt that nobody tried or liked my pie.  As I talked with my husband about it, and he tried to explain that it wasn’t personal, I realized that his family and my family have different tastes, and that’s okay.  He explained that his family doesn’t like “fancy” or “weird” foods.  They are a meat-and-potatoes type of crowd.  I get it.

It made even more sense after we watched Danish film Babette’s Feast (1987). This is one of my dad’s favorite films, and while I had seen it previously many years ago, I wanted to see it again.  My husband was not as excited about watching it because it has subtitles, but you get used to those.  And I promised him that he’d like it.  And he did, toward the end.

babette's feast 1

The film takes place in Denmark in the nineteenth century and is about two spinster sisters who are the daughters of a preacher and who continue his church and service work after his death.  The film revisits their youths, recounting the suitors that never became husbands and the way they came to live as they did, in simple circumstances with simple foods.

We learn that their domestic help, Babette, is from Paris, and came there after her family was killed during counter-revolutionary fighting. When she arrives, the sisters teach her how to make a disgusting concoction called bread and ale soup.  Babette is skeptical, but she follows their recipe and lives simply as they do.

And then, Babette wins the lottery!  She had been trying to for many years, and she does.  Her plan for the money is to cook the sisters and their parishioners, who often visit for dinner and bicker the whole time, a real French dinner, with many courses and complementary wines.  The sisters resist at first, but then give in and allow Babette to cook for them and their friends in the French way.

The parishioners decide that they will not show any pleasure in the meal, for it might be sinful, and they are pretty sure they won’t like it anyway. They are Danish, and apparently, the Danish like to eat simple foods, at least in this film portrayal in this century.

Babette orders the ingredients from Paris, including live birds and turtles.  She spends hours and hours cooking the meal, which includes quail in a sarcophagus and turtle soup.  It looked magnificent.  It made me hungry watching.

Babette's feast

And as the parishioners and the sisters eat, they are less unkind to each other and a sparkle returns to their eyes.  They also follow the lead of a visitor that night, a former suitor of one of the sisters, who knows about fine dining and table manners, and did not marry the sister because he was somewhat appalled at her simple ways and country life.  He begins to question his decision, as his first visit back in many years features this amazing French dinner.  He tells the diners that he has only ever had quail in a sarcophagus at Cafe Anglais, where the head chef was a woman.

Well, this fabulous meal ends with happiness, and with the sisters asking Babette if she will return to Paris now that she has won the lottery.  She tells them that she has spent all of her money on the meal, all 10,000 francs, as that is what the same meal would cost at the Cafe Anglais.  We learn that she was that famous chef.  We also learn that “an artist is never poor.”

I learned from this film that my husband’s family, the Petersens (formerly the Pedersens) of Denmark, might be a lot like the Danish parishioners in the movie, who like simple food and don’t see a need for fancy French meals, although in the movie, it made them happier and less quarrelsome.  I saw my own roots in the movie as well.  The name January (once Janvier) is French, and my father spent much of my childhood taking us to interesting and unique restaurants to try French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Japanese, and other types of food.

This film highlights some comical differences in eating habits between the Danish and the French, and my family and my husband’s family seems to suffer from the same caricature.

While I’m over the apple-pie incident, I’m not over this movie.  It is too wonderful to forget, and if you haven’t yet seen Babette’s Feast, you must.  I promise you’ll like it!