The lady across the way from me didn’t think twice about eating the baby quail’s leg with her fingers, and neither did I. There was a little blob of the goose foie gras stuffing on mine so I licked it off, then washed it all down with a sip of Louis Latour Clos de Vougeot (1983), a “young wine,” the man across the way assured everyone at our table. “Ahhh, yes,” we all agreed, bobbing our heads, it was indeed a young wine. Lifting his glass in the candlelit room, our host stood and called out, “To Babette, to Babette’s feast.”
Babette is Madame Babette Hersant, one of the characters in Babette’s Feast, the Oscar-winning Danish film that opens May 20 at the Fine Arts Theatre. The seven-course feast at which I pigged out previewed not only the movie but the real-life Technicolor version to be presented at Leslee Reis’s Cafe Provencal in Evanston. In a rare and tasteful combination of marketing and art, chef Philip Stocks and his admirable staff will re-create on certain nights the actual meal that Babette serves her 12 guests in the movie.
The movie was adapted from a short story of the same name by Isak Dinesen, aka Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke. In 1931 Dinesen left Kenya to live in Denmark. Though Out of Africa (1937) and Winter’s Tales (1943) were both financial successes, she was not as adept at handling money as she was at weaving dark, neo-Gothic stories. In the late 1940s she was in her 60s and needed some dough, so she hit the magazine scene in the United States with a vengeance, anxious to pick up as much of the postwar lucre as she could. After “Babette’s Feast” was rejected by both the Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping, it was finally accepted and published in 1950 by Ladies Home Journal.
So who the hell is Babette and why has she concocted such a meal? For that, you have to turn to a remote fishing village in Dinesen’s native land. Even the village’s name, Frederikshavn, is bone chilling. Babette goes to work for two elderly sisters as their housekeeper after her husband and son are killed in the bloody Communard uprising of 1871 in Paris. The sisters, Martina and Philippa, are the spinster daughters of a Lutheran minister who had founded a stern, sparse-living sect; they have always lived simply and alone, spurning both the opposite sex and modern thought.
When Babette wins 10,000 francs in the French lottery, she pleads with the sisters to allow her to celebrate their father’s memory by creating a grand meal. The sisters and townspeople are alarmed at such an extravagance, and though they agree to eat the food, they refuse to comment on its magnificence. (At Cafe Provencal you won’t be able to stop commenting.) At the end, of course, the food and drink have warmed spirits and hearts. The old-poop sisters thank Babs for the great eats but admonish her for spending the whole damn kit and caboodle on the meal.
“An artist is never poor,” says Babette. “Through all the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artists: ‘Give me leave to do my utmost.'” Well, Babette’s a cook, not a toastmistress, but this makes the sisters feel all warm and goopy inside. Everyone hugs and life goes drearily on.
Tickets for the movie are six dollars, and with a couple more bucks for popcorn and a Diet Coke thrown in, you’re probably talking about ten dollars. It’s another buck for Dots. After the movie, you’ll have memories of a pleasant film and, maybe, a wad of gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe and a stomachache.
At Cafe Provencal, the meal costs $120 ($90 sans wines) and consists of turtle soup with veal quenelles; blini Demidoff, served with creme fraiche and more than a dollop of Sevruga caviar; quail stuffed with goose foie gras and truffles in puff-pastry nests surrounded by a sauce perigourdine; a salad of four greens and walnuts; a kirsch-soaked cake served with whipped cream, raspberries, strawberries, and cherries; a plate of cheese with an aromatic cantal, a soothing fourme d’Ambert, and an ash-divided morbier; and finally, a plate of fruit–figs, papaya, mango, pineapple, grapes, and dates. Served throughout the meal are sherries, red wines, champagnes, and brandies. It’s a great meal, both in the film and on your plate. Prepared by obviously adept hands, it’s satisfying and sensuous. Afterward you’ll have memories of a fabulous meal and, no doubt about it, unless you’re dead, an ethereal buzz. (Funny thing that Dinesen should write so lovingly and abundantly of food. After years of consuming next to nothing but champagne and oysters, she died at 77 of malnutrition.)
Babette’s Feast opens tonight at the Fine Arts Theatre, 410 S. Michigan. Babette’s feast can be eaten at Cafe Provencal, 1625 Hnman, Evanston, beginning May 23 Monday through Friday. Reservations must be made at least 24 hours in advance. Call 475-2233.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.