Babette’s Feast is perhaps the most memorable film yet made with food as its central theme. It also won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film after its release in 1987.
The film is based on the story by Isak Dinesen, (Karen Blixen), of Out of Africa-fame. The story, which takes place in Jutland in the late 19th century, concerns two spinsters who, in their youth, were ravishing beauties. Despite the attentions of two suitors, one an army officer, the sisters remain single, ostensibly to care for their ageing father, the pastor of a very strict, religious sect on the island.
Enter Babette Hersant, by which time the sisters are in their fifties. Babette, as it turns out, is destitute and a refugee from counter-revolutionary bloodshed in Paris. She carries with her a letter from one of the former suitors, recommending her as a housekeeper. The sisters take Babette in, and she spends fourteen years as their cook. One day, she wins the lottery of 10,000 francs, but instead of returning to Paris to live there in comfort, she decides to use the money to prepare a delicious and most elaborate dinner for the sisters and their small congregation.
This is Babette’s way of sharing her love of food with the congregation, introducing them to the sensual delights to be found in a real French dinner. But the ingredients arriving from Paris are enough to make the pious community shudder. There are things they have never before heard of, let alone seen. The sisters and the congregation, fearful that there might be something sinful in enjoying such exotic foods, agree to eat the meal but to take no pleasure in it. They decide also to make no mention of the food during the entire meal.
Gradually the film changes from bleak winter colours and starts to pick up the rich, lush colours of the dishes, providing a visual feast for the eye. One of the unexpected guests to arrive is the former suitor of one of the spinsters, now a general married to royalty. The high point of the film is reached when the general remarks that the feast reminds him very much of similar dishes he enjoyed many years before at the famous “Café Anglais” in Paris. He describes how the chef there was renowned for her extraordinary culinary skills. ‘Her’.
It is a truly delightful moment when you discover that the simple housekeeper is in reality the famous chef from the “Café Anglais” And it is a wonderful film. But be warned: it contains scenes that might just turn you into a foodie.