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Babette's Feast: A Banquet of Grace

The 1987 Danish film “Babette’s Feast” is set in a bleak coastal village in mid -19th century Denmark. The story revolves around two spinster sisters, daughters of a Puritan pastor now long deceased. The village is populated by the elderly devout remnant of the pastor’s dwindling flock. Their lives are as austere as the setting – grey, bleak, cold, devoid of anything to tempt the senses. As the years pass, the villagers become more cantankerous, constantly recalling each other’s small offenses, keeping petty grudges alive.

One day, a small boat comes to shore with a woman bearing a letter of introduction to the two sisters from an acquaintance of decades past. The woman, Babette, is a refugee fleeing the violence of the counter-revolution in Paris. She needs a place to stay. Buried in the text of the lengthy letter is this simple sentence:

Babette can cook.

The sisters can’t pay her, but they allow her to stay with them in exchange for her assuming basic housekeeping and cooking duties. They show her how to make the simple foods they subsist on, such as a pot of brown sludge they call “bread ale soup” and thin broths with vegetables and boiled fish.

Babette cooks their simple meals for the next fourteen years, exactly as they like to be fed. Nourishment for the body with nothing sensuous to interfere with the soul.

Meanwhile, the townspeople grow crankier, and conflict simmers under every wrinkled surface.

Then, one day, Babette gets a letter from Paris. A friend has been buying her a lottery ticket every year for fifteen years, and she has won 10,000 francs. It is a fortune – enough for her to return to Paris and resume her life there. The sisters are sad to think of her leaving but are also happy for her good fortune.

Babette asks one favor of them: Would they allow her to cook them one real French meal before she goes? They exchange nervous glances and reluctantly agree. They mistrust anything French and fear exposing their flock to something so foreign and sensual, believing the body to be the enemy of the spirit. Still, she has never asked a favor before. It would be unkind to refuse her.

Babette goes away for two days to make arrangements for the ingredients to be sent by boat to the village. A few days later, boats start arriving on the shore, weighed down with exotic things no one in the village has ever seen, not to mention dreamed of eating.

Babette begins to cook.

On the evening of the feast, a dozen guests assemble, one of whom is a French general visiting his ancient aunt who is a member of the parish. The meal is brought out, course by course, wine by wine, dish by elegant dish. The parishioners have made a pact to say nothing about the food. They are going to eat it out of politeness, but not enjoy it. They quote Scripture to each other to bolster their resolve as they devour a feast fit for royalty: “Take no thought for yourselves, what you shall eat, what you shall drink…”

The French general is the only one not in on the pact. He is not one of them. He is an outsider and has the capacity to appreciate what is passing his lips. He informs the others of the pricelessness and rarity of each type of wine, each delicacy. The villagers reply with comments on the weather, meanwhile their mouths full of Babette’s succulent masterpieces.

Even though they refuse to acknowledge the food, a change has come over the room. Squabbling neighbors are smiling at one another. Making confessions, extending forgiveness.

By the end of the meal, the general has realized who the invisible chef in the kitchen must be. He had heard years ago of a woman, the most famous and sought-after chef in Paris, who had fled during the uprising. He said her food was legendary. “It is said when one eats her food, there is no difference between body and spirit. Both are ministered to.”

At the end of the meal, the general stands to his feet, overcome, and makes a speech about grace. He says, “Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude... Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”

The villagers file out when the meal is over, pausing in the square to join hands in a smiling circle of friendship and sing a hymn together before parting ways and returning to their homes.

It is then that the sisters find out Babette is not leaving them. She has spent the entire 10,000 francs on that feast. She has no money and nowhere to go. Horrified, one of the sisters says, “You shouldn’t have given all you own for us.”

Babette answers, “It was not only for you.”

The sister says, “You will be poor now, all your life!”

Babette answers, “An artist is never poor.”

The first time I saw this movie, years ago, I saw that the feast was a metaphor for grace. Babette, at great cost to herself, was lavishing something undeserved and unappreciated upon those who had no capacity to recognize or receive it, purely out of love. She saw their need – the way they had deceived themselves into thinking that the spirit would blossom only if the body was castigated and deprived of all pleasure. She saw their need for awakening and knew that pouring grace down their stubborn old throats would thaw their hearts and teach them to love again. She was right.

But this time, years later, watching the movie again, I saw different things. I saw that Babette needed to cook that feast for herself as much as for the villagers. Her soul was languishing as much as theirs were, just in a different way, for different reasons. She needed to create.

I also saw that Babette’s greatest sacrifice was not spending her entire fortune on the ingredients for one feast. Her greatest sacrifice was the way she cooked their broth and gruel for fourteen years out of respect for them and their traditions, hiding away her magnificent talent, keeping the flame of her artist’s soul hidden under a ratty old bushel basket.

Babette explains to the sisters, “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.”

This is what her artist-soul needed. One more chance to do her best.

But what now? The ingredients are gone. Babette will go back to cooking with the tough vegetables dug from the half-frozen mud and the scrawny fish pulled from the ocean each morning. How will her artist soul survive the next twenty years?

In a flash of insight one of the old sisters grasps this. She truly understands. She pulls Babette close against her chest and whispers to her, “This is not the end. I am sure it is not. In paradise, you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. And how you will delight the angels!”

A breeze blows in the window, snuffing out a candle, and the credits roll.

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