This weekend, the Metrograph theater in New York City’s Lower East Side will be screening "Food-on-Film: A Weekend with Alton Brown," featuring six of Food52 friend Alton Brown’s favorite food films. They’re all classics, and readily available. We’ll be running short essays throughout the week on each one.
Babette’s Feast (1987), the Oscar-winning Danish production cribbed from an Isak Dinesen short story, owes a lot its endurance in popular memory to its wealth of lush compositions. As Alton Brown rightly points out in his liner notes for the film, though, there's a more delicate current of generosity that runs through the film. The embodiment of this spirit is Stephane Audran’s titular Babette, the French refugee of the 1871 Communard uprising who wanders to the film’s setting of a weary Danish costal town. She is a stranger when she chances upon two rapidly fossilizing spinster sisters (Birgitte Federspiel and Bodil Kjer) whose diets orbit around flaccid fish; they decide to take her in as their cook. (“If you don’t take me on,” Babette cries, “the only alternative is death.”)
Babette demurs accordingly, preparing dishes at the behest of her new bosses in spite of the great indignity of this practice. In her previous life, Babette was the highly sought-after chef of Paris' Café Anglais, but displacement has stripped her of this biography. Fourteen years pass; one night, Babette learns that she’s won the lottery back in France. A friend had been keeping her lottery ticket alive for years. She decides to use her newfound capital to create a French celebration dinner for the 100th birthday of the sisters' father, a pastor. They haven’t enjoyed the pleasures of a feast like Babette’s; they had been planning, simply, a “modest dinner followed by a cup of coffee," and are thus unaware of the labor involved in creating a feast of such scope and ambition. The creation of a great meal, they will soon learn, requires sacrifice.
What follows is a series of scenes I can't forget—we see Babette walking along the beach and fetching the creatures she'll need for the feast, sent to her from her nephew in France. They include a group of quails in a cage and a hulking tortoise with the girth of a McMansion, taken to her kitchen in a wheelbarrow. The camera lingers over these animals, wholly unaware of the fate that is about to befall them: Babette’s masterpiece will require their submission. The tortoise sits upon the tabletop, writhing and groaning with pain. The two sisters look on in horror, surveying what Babette has prepped for them and wondering if they've made a mistake. (The turtle will play a starring role in one of their nightmares hours later—who is this pagan sorceress in our house, the dream seems to ask, and is she about to kill us?)
Shop the Story
The fears subside once Babette serves her meal. The resultant feast that is unlike any the townspeople have ever eaten; it has a leavening effect upon them. The sisters end the meal thinking that Babette will return to France and claim the rest of her lottery spoils, but soon after, she reveals the meal has depleted her resources entirely—the feast was an elaborate gesture of goodwill. But what becomes of these animals? The turtle will form the base of a soup, "Potage à la Tortue," served alongside Amontillado sherry; the quails will be braided into puff pastries, "Cailles en Sarcophage." Babette’s Feast treats the life and death of these animals with simple, factual detachment: cooking, like any great art, calls for a certain degree of destruction.
What's your favorite scene from Babette's Feast? Let us know in the comments!
Update, 11/7: The original post's language implied that the feast was for a living townsperson. We've updated accordingly to make clear that it was for the sisters' father, a deceased pastor.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.