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Babette's Feast


This story can only be explained
through the hidden regions of the heart
where mercy and truth have met together;
righteousness and peace have kissed one another,
as written in Psalm 85:10.

In the late nineteenth century, there lived a Lutheran preacher in a small village in Jutland, on the west coast of Norway. He lived a strict puritanical life with two beautiful daughters, Martina (named after Martin Luther) and Philippa (named after Luther’s disciple, Philip Melanchthon). He had some faithful disciples from the secluded impoverished fishing community. All of them wore black. All worldly pleasures and luxuries were renounced.

Their daily diet consisted of dried fish and hard bread boiled together with water, and seasoned with ale. A photo of the preacher adorned the wall of their living room. On the Lord’s Day, they came together to the preacher’s home where a brief sermon was shared and hymns were sung about their heavenly home:

Jerusalem, my heart’s true home
Your name is forever dear to me.
Your kindness is second to none
You keep us clothed and fed
Never would you give a stone
To the child who begs for bread

Whenever the two sisters went visiting the elderly people at their homes, they would feed them with the same food they had prepared and partaken at home. They lived very simply so that others could very simply live. They exercised self-denial and embraced celibacy.

These two young girls attracted a lot of young men to the church. Though their beauty was marvellous to behold, all other intentions had to be suppressed. No courtship attempts were successful.

A young cavalry officer named Lorens went to the village to visit his elderly aunt, Miss Loewenhielm. He was dazzled by the gracefulness of Martina. He went to the preacher’s home regularly and listened to his teachings. His love for Martina was rejected. Broken hearted, he left for the city. There he won the heart of a lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophia, with the gracious and prayerful words he had learned and gained from the preacher.

A director of the Paris Opera named Achille Papin went to the village for a quiet retreat, staying at the grocer’s home. He overheard the singing of Philippa - a diva-to-be whose angelic voice was worthy of the Grand Opera of Paris. He offered singing lessons to her – envisioning all of France will fall at her feet. Philippa consented to a few lessons. During vocalizing one of the aria from Don Giovanni, both hearts of the teacher and the student swelled beyond the song, and ended up with one embracing the other as their lips met. The preacher immediately wrote him a note to cease all future lessons. The director was devastated and returned to Paris.

Many years later, the two sisters, now middle-aged bachelorettes, carried out the mission of their deceased father. Without his stern leadership, the sect fell apart. One of the disciples harbored unforgiveness against another brother concerning some monetary matters. Rumors were also spreading about a thirty year-old love affair between two of the members. Two elderly ladies refused to speak to one another for nearly ten years. Despite these problems, all of them still met for service and worship. But fervency and zealousness for the Lord were lost. The hymns became dull and dry.

One stormy night, the sisters welcomed a stranger who was so weak that she collapsed upon entering their home. As they revived her, they found out that she could not speak Danish. She handed them a letter of introduction written by Achille Papin. Her name was Babette. Her husband and son were killed in the Civil War. She had fled France, seeking refuge. The end of the letter was her resume: "Babette can cook."

They initially refused to take her in since they had no money to employ her. But upon much pleading, they received her as their maid – her wages would be paid in kinds, both accommodation and food.

The two sisters began to teach Babette how to cook their only recipe - fish-bread-ale soup. Being a humble servant, she obliged to learn. She helped to reduce household costs through bargaining at the grocer’s shop and with the fishermen. Instead of dried fish, they had cheaper and fresher ones. Instead of ale, they had onions. The food became more appealing and appetizing. The offerings increased as the elderly folks gave more. Some life returned to the fishing village.

Babette had only one connection with France – a lottery ticket, which her friend renewed for her annually. Fourteen years later, she received her first letter from Paris. She had won first prize - 10,000 francs! Martina and Philippa had mixed feelings - joy at her blessing and sadness at the thought that the time of her departure was at hand. They lamented these words of Job: "The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away" (Job 1:21).

By no coincidence, during that same timeframe, the sisters were planning a small celebration in honor of the hundredth birthday of their father. No food, just tea and coffee. But Babette presented them with a request. She would like to prepare a true authentic French dinner for the special occasion - with all expenses paid by her. They refused at first. But since this was the first and only request Babette had made in 14 years, they consented finally.

The money arrived from France. The two ladies helped Babette to count all the notes and coins. Once checked and tallied, Babette kept the money in her bedroom. She took a few days off to Paris to make arrangements for the dinner. During those days, the elderly toothless folks dreaded at the sight of the old fish-bread-ale soup that the sisters served them.

The weeks following Babette’s return were eye-openers for the villagers as the incoming boats unloaded crates of bottles of wine and champagne, quails, exotic vegetables, the head of a cow, a live turtle and a huge block of ice. As the wheelbarrows transported the goods from the shore to the house, the people were more shocked than amazed. Would these be used for brewing a witch’s sabbath?

Martina and Philippa gathered the disciples and explained their dilemma. After much discussion, they agreed to partake the French dinner. They also promised not to utter a bad word about the questionable cuisine. Tongues were not meant for tasting food, they were for praise and thanksgiving.

Lorens, now an successful general, had attained success at the highest. His aunt, Mrs. Loewenhielm, was one of the invited guests to the dinner. She made a request to the sisters whether her nephew could come. When they asked Babette, she replied, "That’s plenty for everyone!" As Lorens prepared himself to meet his first love Martina again, he reflected upon his life wondering whether he had taken a wrong path and questioning the purposes of life.

It was snowing that night. The table was laid with elegant tablecloth, beautiful china for food and crystal glasses for wine. The room was decorated with candles on silver stands, and the sweet smell of freshly cut evergreens filled the air. They sung their favorite hymn of "Jerusalem, My Heart’s True Home". They also renewed their promise not to say a word about the dishes to be served.

As the guest of honor, Lorens, arrived, they all sat at the table. Wine was served. "Amontillado!" the general exclaimed. "And the finest Amontillado that I have ever tasted." When the turtle soup was served, Lorens could not contain his joy. How could such a heavenly dish be found and served in this lousy, sleepy town?

While the rest of the guests were cautiously examining their food before supping them down, the general’s face was radiant with great joy and delight! He seemed to be the only enjoying the food and wine. The kitchen help was ordered by Babette to keep filling the general’s glass with the champagne, a Veuve Cliquot 1860.

When the kitchen help served the baby quails, Cailles en Sarcophage, Lorens recalled this special dish and spoke:

"One day in Paris, after I had won a riding competition, my French fellow officers invited me out to dine at one of the finest restaurants, the Cafe Anglais. The chef, surprisingly enough, was a woman. We were served Cailles en Sarcophage, a dish of her own creation. General Galliffet, who was our host for the evening, explained that this woman, the head chef, had the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair, a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite. General Galliffet said that in the past he had fought a duel for the love of a beautiful woman. But now there was no woman in Paris for whom he would shed his blood—except this chef. She was considered the greatest culinary genius. What we are now eating is nothing less than Cailles en Sarcophage."

As all of them ate, their blood warmed up. Their tongues unlocked as they started sharing the good times they had with the preacher. Forgiveness flowed as they confessed their faults one to another, seeking reconciliation. The two elderly women were speaking to each other again. All of them were beginning to enjoy the food and wine. One particular lady asked for more liquor, without second thoughts about caring what the else would say. Free at last!

The words of the preacher flowed out graciously from the mouth of the general:

"Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness, believe he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when your eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence, and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us, and everything have rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth are met together; and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."

The dinner finally ended. The guests broke forth dancing joyfully, joining hands around the well, celebrating the goodness of the Lord. Against the backdrop of the stars, moon and snow, with their sins forgiven, they skipped like lambs of God, pure and white. The stars had moved closer. Perhaps they moved closer every night.

Back at the kitchen where greasy pots and unwashed dishes piled up, Babette stood satisfied. Below was the final conversation between the three ladies.

Martina: It was quite a nice dinner, Babette.

Babette: I was once cook at the Cafe Anglais.

Martina: We will remember this evening when you have gone back to Paris, Babette.

Babette: I’m not going back to Paris. All my friends and relatives there have been killed or imprisoned. And of course, it would be expensive to return to Paris.

Philippa: But what about the 10,000 francs?

Babette: Don’t be shocked. That is what a proper dinner for twelve costs at the Cafe Anglais.

Philippa: But not for us....

Babette: It was not just for you.

Martina: Now you'll be poor for the rest of your life.

Babette: An artist is never poor.

Philippa: Did you prepare that sort of dinner at the Cafe Anglais?

Babette: I was able to make them happy when I gave of my very best. Papin knew that.

Philippa: Achille Papin?

Babette: Yes. He said, "Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best."

Philippa: But that is not the end, Babette, I’m certain of that. In paradise, you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. Ah, how you will delight the angels!

And the three lived happily thereafter.

I remember a Biblical Babette named Mary who took an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on Jesus' head as He sat at the table (Matthew 26:7). And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Giving all that she had in total surrender and abandonment to the Lord. She became a blessing and others were blessed. They got to enjoy the sweet smell.

"Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her." Matthew 26:13

And I have just told you her story.

Footnotes:
Babette’s Feast was written by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen). Originally published in English in 1953, it was later translated into Danish. Gabriel Axel directed the film adaptation starring Stephanie Audran, Jean Phillipe Lafont and Gudmar Wivesson.
This film won the 1987 Oscar Award for Best Foreign Film. I have watched it thrice. Highly recommended.

Sources:

  • Babette’s Feast, video recording, release of 1988 picture, Orion Home Video, New York, 1988.
  • Transcriptions by David Schimpf