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Isak Dinesen in a Life Magazine photograph

   
       

BABETTE'S FEAST


 
 

Food, Film, a Woman worth Dueling Over

   

 

Babette's Feast: Capturing all of the world in a short story.  The wild bleak coast of Norway; Babette is the mysterious Frenchwoman and stranger who enters this stark puritanical world.  The simple strong lines of the tale, like fjords, or ‘God’s paths (which) run across the sea and the mountains, where man’s eye sees no track.'  Norwegian sisters, Martine and Philippa, are the daughters of the founder of a religious sect, their life one of pious abnegation, simplicity, charity, eternally tied to the memory of their father.  The two men who had romanced them, once, when they had been young.  Lorens, now the worldly General Loewenhielm who is not quite happy (wondering to himself: Can the sum of a row of victories in many years and in many countries be a defeat?) and Achille Papin, the opera singer who had once taught Philippa to sing, and then kissed her while rehearsing Don Giovanni and scared her away.  Babette, with her mysterious Parisian past, a refugee from the French Revolution, who washes up on the doorstep of the two sisters bearing a letter from Papin.  She works as their cook, and at their request prepares only the simplest Norwegian fare.  Years go by.  Then one day she wins the French lottery, and has but one request: to be able to prepare a feast for them. 12 diners at the table: the sisters, the flock of the religious sect, and General Loewenhielm and his old aunt, in this marvelous inversion of the Last Supper. 

 

 

Babette offers something that is the opposite of god then, a creator of a different sort, and Dinesen who once said ‘Real art must always involve some witchcraft,’ likens Babette to '...the bottled demon of the fairy tale.'  And the feast with all its decadent sensuous pleasures—turtle soup served with the finest Amontillado, Blinis Demidoff, and Cailles en Sarcophage (recipe at the nytimes.com)—comes to symbolize the redemptive power and magic of great art.

 


Cailles (Quails) en Sarcophage

 

Only General Loewenhielm realizes who Babette really is, for he had heard about her many years ago in Paris as the inventor of Cailles en Sarcophage: ‘...a person known all over Paris as the greatest culinary genius of the age, and—most surprisingly—a woman! “And indeed,” said Colonel Galliffet, “this woman is now turning a dinner at the Café Anglais into a kind of love affair—into a love affair of the noble and romantic category in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite or satiety!  I have, before now, fought a duel for the sake of a fair lady.  For no woman in all Paris, my young friend, would I more willingly shed my blood!'

 

Perhaps it was the years of dreaming in Africa while running a coffee plantation (that essential remove) that fed Isak Dinesen's wild and beautiful imagination.  Born Karen Blixen in Denmark (and known as Tania or Tanne to her friends), her own life was as colorful and exotic as anything she wrote about.  She moved to Africa with her husband (the brother of her former love, and a Baron) and ran a coffee plantation.  Her marriage and the move to Africa was something of a wild escapade and an escape, for it offered her freedom.  The marriage eventually failed, as did the coffee plantation, years later. 

 


Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in Out of Africa

 

Out of Africa chronicles her years in Kenya, her interaction with the Kikuyu, and her relationship with Englishman Denys Finch-Hatton who died in a plane crash, all romanticized in the film of the same name.  As Dinesen herself said, Babette's Feast can be seen as a sequel of sorts to Out of Africa in a most metaphorical sense, a meditation on mourning and loss.  It is also perhaps one of the finest statements in literature on what it is to be an artist.

 

The Danish film is a delightful and subtle adaptation of the story (and probably the greatest foodie flick ever!)

 

Read: Babette's Feast & Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard, Isak Dinesen

 

See: Babette's Feast, the film

 

Read: Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (the marvelous biography by Judith Thurman)

 

Read: Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen

 

See: Out of Africa, the film

 

Cook: Cailles (Quails) en Sarcophage, nytimes.com recipe

 

Tags: food  literature  film  travel  africa    france     
 

 

 

 

 

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