September 27, 2015
We’ll finish up “food flics month” with the film I take to be the granddaddy of them all: Babette’s Feast. It came out way back in in 1987, before food was cool. Unlike the other three films we’ve mentioned, it is not a documentary. It’s based on a story by Karen Blixen set in 19th century Berlevåg, Norway, though the film relocates events to the austere coast of Jutland. A young Frenchwoman (Babette) appears on the doorstep of an austere religious sect seeking asylum. After working for them as a cook and servant for some years, Babette wins the lottery and proposes to treat this group accustomed to an austere diet of gruel (or some such) to “a real French dinner”. Some of the plotting concerns whether the group can permit itself to break from the austere conventions that are required by piety to accept this offer, but eventually, they agree to the feast out of consideration for Babette, (who, they presume, will be leaving them now that she is rich).
In case it wasn’t clear from the previous paragraph, the key theme here is austerity.
I saw this movie when it came out, and haven’t seen it since, so I may be misremembering a few points. As I recall it, the main part of the film concerns the collection of the diverse ingredients for the meal, Babette’s loving and meticulous preparations, the sumptuousness of the feast itself and the pleasure of the usually abstemious diners. As the story winds up, we learn that in Babette’s former life she was a great chef, and that having spent her entire lottery winnings on the meal, is not rich. Hence she will be remaining among the sect as a chambermaid. There’s also a bit about Babette revealing that her artistry in cooking is her true wealth—presumably a point against the somber asceticism of the religious sect—but the obvious food ethics dimension notwithstanding, I’m not going there. I will note that the Wikipedia article on Babette’s Feast claims that it is Pope Francis’ favorite film.
The movie inspired many to replicate the menu of the feast (also on the Wikipedia site), and spawned a flurry of interest in the idea that culinary arts can rise to the same aesthetic heights as classical forms: music, painting, literature or sculpture. Viewers of Babette’s Feast could fashion themselves as adventurers whose quest for an exquisite meal was on a cultural par with that of someone who attends a symphony concert or spends weekends at art museums. Could the Food Network be far behind? In fact, it wasn’t; founded in 1993.
Equally important, filmmaker Gabriel Axel demonstrated the cinematic qualities of food so convincingly that an impressive line of film’s celebrating the production and consumption of foods was to follow: Like Water for Chocolate; Eat Drink Man Woman; and just last year, The Hundred-Foot Journey. This would be a very long list. Films like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover should also be on it, though here the themes of pleasure and seduction are troubled. Beyond these films where food is central to the plot, there are many, many more where a meal is affectionately presented in opulent detail either to advance some other theme, or simply to provide viewers with a momentary bit of eye candy. I ask you, would we be having a food movement today without this sequence of films? It’s always hard to answer the chicken/egg dilemma with phenomena like this, but whether symptom or cause, I assert that Babette’s Feast marks a milestone for the enthusiasm with foods are celebrated in the first two decades of the 21st century. It’s definitely worth a look in “food flics” month.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan