If you haven’t seen this 1987 Danish film, do so. Even if you’re not into food (who isn’t?) or haven’t lived a secluded Puritan life (who has?), the story of an artist-chef may surprise you.
The story starts out a little slowly, and there is quite a lot of singing–religious singing, and in Danish–but laugh at it, or with it, and you’ll soon find you are in the right mind for Martine and Philippa, the right hand and left hand of their pastor father. Not to confuse you: the story is not outright humorous, but it rubs the tongue against the cheek and those among us with taste to spare find the story hops right along.
The pastor father dies, as it turns out, not long after we meet these local beauties, but not before claiming their poverty, chastity and obedience. In essence, he makes it clear that no man will ever take either of these women away to a life of….well, to a life.
So being good Danish girls, but poor judges of taste in every splendor, they comply, each turning away a suitor and a potential life of color, if not adventure. Martine is courted by the gallant Lorens, man of the military, and Philippa by a musician, an opera singer who, years later, offers them a housekeeper-cook in the person of Babette.
Here is where the scenery of the Jutland coast turns a little more rosy. Like all characters de vivre, Babette espouses a more sumptuous sort of life, more lively and somewhat more forceful. She alters their disgusting ale-bread gruel and begins adding onions and bacon and perhaps even salt to the fare. Even the poor starving parishioners to whom the sisters bring food are grateful for Babette’s arrival in Jutland.
The rest of the story is fantastic, and you will not read about it here, for the development is made all the more joyous when you watch the relationships connect and the coolness dissolve into Veuve Clicquot.
But for me it took on a different meaning, now that I have spent time in a semi-inhospitable and small, secluded part of the world. I have heard the inner bickering and I have witnessed neighbors saying one thing one day and the opposite two days later. It happens everywhere, I know. But somehow, in a village, it seems to take on a greater role than other places, places perhaps where there is more variety–in food, in activity, in personalities.
And what if it is impossible to reach such places, where breadth of thought is not a longing but a staple? What if the cost of leaving the village is just too high? What if it’s just too late? Then it is time for Babette to win the lottery, and time for the General to pour the wine. It is time, wherever we are, to be thankful, and to celebrate what we have before we have lived so long we cannot remember what it was like to taste anything but ale-bread gruel.