M. Jane Ross
As I prepared my dish for the Thanksgiving dinner we would share at Peg S.’s house, I remembered another feast. “Babette’s Feast.” This jewel of a short story by Karen Blixen is best known as the beautiful and faithfully rendered 1988 Oscar-winning film by Gabriel Axel.
In the story, Babette is a superb French cook, exiled from Paris during the uprising of 1871. Arriving in a tiny Danish fishing village, she is taken in by the pious villagers and becomes the cook for two elderly spinster sisters, adapting her great talent to the very simple frugal fare that their religious beliefs demand.
One day, the sisters express their longing to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of their dear father, the founder and patriarch of the village, now departed. Taking it upon herself to prepare a French meal in his honor, Babette orders the very finest ingredients and wines, table linens, china, and crystal and creates a dinner that uplifts all but that only one among the dozen guests truly appreciates for its grandeur and sublime artistry. The urbane General Lowenhielm rises unsteadily to his feet at the end of the meal. “Mercy and truth have met together,” he proclaims. “Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another….”—a transcendent speech inspired by Babette's transcendent feast. The guests depart into the night, the villagers momentarily freed from their self-righteous frugality and their petty disagreements, from their pains and their trials.
“Babette’s Feast” is not a story about the transformative power of great food. It is, among other things, about the transformative power of art when it is practiced at the very highest level to which we aspire and in service to the community. It is about gratitude and generosity, about the marriage of body and soul, and about mercy. While Babette’s cooking is a metaphor for the artist’s gift to the world, “Babette’s Feast” (the story itself) is author Karen Blixen’s gift to us all, a feast cooked from the same set of words and longings that you and I know every day, selected, arranged, and simmered together to create a small and perfect work of art.
In the food stories we all will write, food can be a metaphor for many things (and I’ll explore this in future columns). But in all our lifewriting, what if we think of ourselves as Babette, putting heart and soul into our art to create a feast for the reader’s imagination, one that might, who knows, transform how that reader sees the world?
A writing challenge: Watch the movie of Babette’s Feast and read the short story in the collection Babette's Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). Write your response to the story. Can you see yourself as Babette, creating a feast of words? How do Babette’s closing words, “The artist is never poor,” apply to your own life and your writing?