Sharing Babette’s Feast

I have a personal holiday tradition that I’ve been practicing for about 20 years now. I usually wind up doing it sometime between Christmas and New Year’s; I’d prefer to celebrate before Christmas, but things just never quite work out because of lack of time and preoccupation with the upcoming Yule. Also, because I did this ritual for the first time in the doldrum period between the year-end holidays, it now seems a more natural part of my season to continue to do it then (i.e., now).

I’m in love with the movie Babette’s Feast. I was enchanted with it upon first viewing when it was released to theaters back in the 80s. Later, I rented it as a video, and the love affair became permanent, with an added twist: I discovered the viewing experience was heightened by actually eating along with the feast in the last section of the movie.

Since I don’t cook, I’ve never attempted any of the dishes in the movie, or even pathetic facsimiles. I just try to have something tasty, with enough of it on the plate to last me through the on-screen meal. The key element is wine. I must have wine with the food, preferably champagne, although I’ve made it work with a variety of wines, both red and white. No, I don’t invest in an expensive label comparable to the vintages served in the movie. My palate isn’t that sophisticated. Fortunately, there are a lot of nice wines that don’t cost very much, and they serve my almost sacramental purposes.

I confess I don’t watch the entire movie each time. I like to begin at the point where the boat arrives from France with all of the ingredients for Babette’s feast, from the live quail and hissing tortoise to the casks of wine. I love to watch the preparations of the food — even the remains of the butchered cow being hauled away in a wheelbarrow, the cow’s head sitting on a platter in the kitchen, and the young boy plucking feathers from the dead quail — as well as the setting of the table in the dining room, with the tablecloth being ironed on the table and china being carefully placed at each seat.

I’ve actually performed this ritual more than once per season in various years, but the “authentic” one is usually the first viewing. I used to refer to the “authentic” viewing as my angel feast, in reference to Cafe Anglais in the film and the line “How you will delight the angels!” I always saw it as a gathering of my angels to thank them for the blessings of the preceding year. I turn off all the lights except the Christmas tree, and I light candles. (First I make sure my platter of food is warmed and ready, the wine open and poured.)

Then I simply follow along with the film, eating tiny bites at first until the feast actually gets underway. I love the guests’ arrival in the sisters’ candle-lit parlor contrasted with the hum of activity in the kitchen as Babette prepares her cailles en sarcophage: slicing open the tiny birds’ bodies to receive slices of something enticing, then closing the breasts again and positioning the birds in nests of puff pastry (with the final touch of the little bald heads put in place as well, a flourish that gives me a chill even as the notion intrigues me).

I love the expression of the guests as they first enter the dining room and see the lavish table glistening with crystal and silver, with more utensils and glasses at each place than any of them could conceive of using in a week’s time.

With the General’s first astonished sip of fine wine, I feel free to delve into my own feast for real, savoring my own delicacies, whatever they may be, as well as the cuisine Babette is serving, along with all the details I’ve learned to treasure over the years: the way the guests’ pasty, dour faces become more rosy as their spirits open; the General’s driver, who sits in the kitchen and samples helpings of the feast in exchange for doing little chores for Babette — and whose wide face marvels at the wonders Babette achieves as he watches; the General’s speech about grace and mercy and our being granted even what we rejected; and, at the end, the jarring revelation of what the feast meant to Babette both as redemption and sacrifice. Finally, her utterance of what I claim as a personal philosophy: An artist is never poor!

Needless to say, the spiritual appeal of Babette’s Feast is as dear to me as the seductive physical details. That’s why it’s become a holiday ritual for me — a feast for the soul as well as the body, just as the General describes her dinner at Cafe Anglais in Paris.

My dream is to one day actually experience a recreation of Babette’s feast (assuming I could afford it). I’d love to know what each of those courses tastes like as well as the wine. I suspect, though, that I might not be much more moved by that extravagant experience than by my many angels feasts by candlelight, with budget wine and a platter of much simpler food.

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