Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine


"Ferguson has her nose in the right place, and an infectious lust for her subject that makes this trawl through the history and cultural significance of French food from French Revolution to Babettes Feast via Balzac's suppers and Proust's madeleines a satisfying meal of varied courses. Accounting for Taste brims over with both anecdote and insight, not to mention cartoons and illustrations, and is particularly good both on the written formalising of French cooking at the beginning of the 19th century and on France's export of a sort of culinary-pastoral myth of itself."—Ian Kelly, The Times (UK)

"French cuisine may or may not be the world's best, but it certainly is the most widely influential cooking style, and it is unquestionably the standard against which all other cuisines are measured. In this culinary history, Ferguson traces how the cooking of the French nation survived revolutions and changes in fashion to reach the summit of good taste. She contrasts the aesthetic of French dining with the raucous, undisciplined cuisine of America. But she does find America's attitude toward a single meal, Thanksgiving, a revealing exception to the general rule. In a striking epilogue, Ferguson minutely analyzes the film Babette's Feast, showing how French cooking came to stand in the film for art in general."—Booklist

"I welcome and applaud Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson's well-researched and enlightening book on a subject that is near and dear to me and countless others: French cuisine. Representative of a new genre of serious and scholarly books on cuisine as an integral part of culture, Accounting for Taste demonstrates the importance of a field of study that was deemed 'too trivial' for academic exploration when I was a college student thirty years ago."—Jacques Pépin

"Today more than ever in the culinary world we have a curiosity for how cooking has developed. French cuisine has been nurturing chefs and diners alike since its emergence. Priscilla Ferguson sensibly captures the essence of French cuisine by following the steps of its evolution as one of the most influential cultures in the world. Accounting for Taste is truly a remarkable contribution to gastronomical literature."—Charlie Trotter

Babette's Feast
A Fable for Culinary France
Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
Excerpt from Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine

Among the many films that center on food at the end of the twentieth century, Babette's Feast (Babettes Gaestebud) stands out for its reach and for the subtlety of its sensuality. For this film depicts far more than food and foodways; it shows more than the sensuality of food in our lives. Paradoxically, this Danish film tells an exemplary tale of French cuisine. Its portrayal of a French cook far from France evokes the French culinary landscape even more than the Danish countryside where it is set.

Surely it is appropriate that the cinema supply the iconic culinary text of the twentieth century. Film captures, as a photograph cannot, the interactive process that culinary art requires. More immediately than print and like cuisine itself, film conveys a sensory awareness that embraces the viewer as the more intellectual medium cannot. Just as the written recipe can only suggest the sensory, so words inevitably fail to convey the comprehensive, all-enveloping sensuality of taste. The immediacy achieved by the moving narrative raises Babette's Feast to iconic status well above the short story by Isak Dinesen from which it is drawn. Through its exploitation of the sensory, the film transforms a "story from the human heart," as Dinesen puts it in the narrative frame of the original story, into an emblem of French culinary culture.

Brought to the screen in 1987 by the Danish director Gabriel Axel, Babette's Feast arguably inaugurated what the past twenty-five years or so have consecrated as a veritable cinematic genre—the food film. From the exuberantly sexual foreplay of the couple devouring a turkey leg in Tom Jones (1963) to the Taiwanese Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and the fluffy paean to the senses, Chocolat (2000), with many films in between, the food film has become a staple in the cinematic larder, another sign of the salience of food in the larger culture today. We all have our favorite from this lengthy roster. Indeed, based on the sheer number of food films, it would seem that just about every group that lays claim to a cuisine now has a film to tell the world about it.

Babette's Feast shares many characteristics with other food films. First and foremost, it lovingly details the many pleasures of food, though unlike many others it does not equate the sensory with the sexual. More than others, however, and conspicuously more than Isak Dinesen's short story, it celebrates the senses. It invests cuisine—very pointedly French cuisine—with incomparable transformative powers. The spectacular repast that crowns the film conjures up a vision of spiritual well-being created by the transcendent artistry of a chef who sacrifices all for her art and, through that art, recreates her country. This restitution of place and resurrection of time makes the most powerful case yet for the intimate drama of culinary metamorphosis.


Babette's Feast takes place in a remote seaside village in Jutland, the site of an especially strict Lutheran sect. The beautiful young daughters of the founder of the sect renounce suitors from the outside world who would have taken them away from their father, their village, and their religion. Martine (named for Martin Luther) rejects an aristocratic, worldly army officer, and Philippa (named for Luther's friend Phillip Melancton) turns down the offer of Achille Papin, a visiting French opera star, to sing in Paris, where he promises to make her a star. Years pass; neither sister marries. The two devote their lives to good works and keeping their now-dead father's spirit alive.

One evening some thirty-five years later, in September 1871, in the midst of a driving rainstorm, a bedraggled and visibly exhausted woman appears on the doorstep of the two sisters, who are now in late middle age. The stranger bears a letter of introduction from Achille Papin, who remembers his idyll in rural Denmark as a very special, because so very different, time and place in his life. He asks the sisters to take in the woman, a refugee from the civil war raging in Paris in which her husband and son were both brutally killed "like rats." She herself, his letters informs them, barely escaped with her life. Babette Hersant has lost her family, her country, her language, and, as it turns out, her art. She is beaten, desolate, and desperate to be taken in.

Such is the simplicity of the sisters' life that they scarcely know what to do with a servant, even one who will work for no wages. Nevertheless, they take her in, and Babette—played by the luminous Stïphane Audran—soon becomes indispensable to them and to those whom they succor. The slight but significant touches that she brings to the daily fare make the food more palatable—and even, in a term that seems foreign to this strict Protestant sect, pleasurable. Babette insists on the quality of foodstuffs as she bargains in rudimentary but effective Danish with the grocer and the fishmonger, both of whom she astounds with her insistence on superior vegetables and absolutely fresh fish. It is clear that no one else gives such care to the quality of material ingredients or makes use of the herbs that she gathers in the fields overlooking the sea and hangs in her kitchen.

When Babette leaves for a time and the sisters return to their task of dispensing their own unappetizingly brown ale-bread soup to the poor, one old man testily throws his spoon down when served the meal that had been perfectly acceptable before Babette's arrival. Once good taste is learned, there is no return. Another ends his prayers with thanks to God for sending Babette. The sisters sense rather than actually know that food tastes better, although they know for sure that their financial state has greatly improved since this foreigner came to them. Into this world disdainful of earthly delights, Babette subtly presses claims for the life around us. In a telling aesthetic gesture that sets her apart from the rest of the villagers, she washes the windows of the cottage to let the light and beauty of the outside world into the dark interior.

Fourteen years pass. The sisters make plans to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of their father's birth. This celebration comes at a crucial moment: like many other sects after the loss of a charismatic founder, the disciples have fallen to squabbling and backbiting. The sisters hope that the simple repast that they envision will make whole what time and travail have sundered and thus will restore the spiritual harmony of their early church. At this point, Babette receives a letter from France with the news that she has won ten thousand francs in the state lottery. A child of misfortune, she has quite suddenly been made fortunate. After much thought, she requests permission to prepare the commemorative feast for the sisters and the community of believers, but she wants to do so on her own terms, as a "real French dinner." She also insists on paying for it. The sisters reluctantly grant her request. They assume that this will be the last meal she will make for them before she returns to France a rich woman. After a journey to marshal supplies that she has ordered from France, Babette returns at the head of a great procession of foodstuffs, including gleaming candelabra and silverware, elegant china and table linens, cases of wine, a calf's head, several quails in a cage, and an enormous live turtle that gives Martine nightmares.

Horrified at what they fear will turn into a "witches' Sabbath," the sisters warn the community, begging forgiveness in advance. Like the early Christian martyrs, they determine to meet the presence of evil with resignation, in silence, with their minds on heaven, not earth. No one will think about the food. "It will be as if we never had the sense of taste," says one of the disciples. The sisters' apprehension only increases as Babette sets about preparing the meal. "Surely that isn't wine?" Martine asks in fear and trembling. "No, that isn't 'wine,'" Babette replies indignantly. "It's Clos de Vougeot 1845," the strange name only enhancing Martine and Philippa's sense of foreboding. With the help of a young boy engaged for the occasion, Babette slaughters, cooks, sifts, bakes, stirs, irons, polishes, burnishes. The dinner brings an unexpected guest, Lorens Loewenhielm, the army officer and suitor of Martine from years before, who is now a general. As before, he is visiting his aunt nearby and will accompany her to the celebratory dinner.

The general is an essential figure for the culinary narrative, because he knows, as the others do not, what he is eating. The bubbly drink that one disciple reckons a kind of lemonade, he recognizes as a Veuve Cliquot 1860. More and more astounded as the meal proceeds, Loewenhielm comes to the realization that the only place that could have produced such a repast was the renowned Cafï Anglais in Paris whose signature dishes included the very "entombed quail" (cailles en sarcophage) that they are now consuming. As a young man posted to Paris, he had been honored at a memorable dinner at the very place. In the course of that dinner, his host, General Galliffet, recounted the surprising story of the extraordinary chef of this superb restaurant who, "quite exceptionally," was a woman. This incomparable chef had the great gift of transforming a dinner into "a kind of love affair" that "made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite." The entombed quail were her invention.

General Loewenhielm never seeks to learn how this dish, which he determines to be absolutely authentic, has appeared in such an unlikely venue. Under the circumstances, his silence is appropriate: explanation is neither necessary nor significant. Like the other guests, Loewenhielm accepts this manna from heaven as a sign of grace to be received without question and with boundless gratitude. The twelve at table, with Babette in the kitchen preparing the transformative red wine and bread, make this pointedly a last supper. Even the quail in their tombs suit a dinner where death is so present. The guests are themselves very elderly, and their thoughts turn frequently to the fate that awaits them in the hereafter, the punishments that will be meted out for past sins. The hymn that Philippa sings after dinner poignantly invokes the end of life, when all will be reconciled: "The sand in our hourglass will soon run out / The day is conquered by the night / The glories of the world are ending / So brief their day, so swift their flight / God, let thy brightness ever shine / Admit us to Thy mercy divine."

Unmistakably, that reconciliation has already occurred around the dinner table, where Babette has indeed worked magic. Her feast has renewed friendships, restored love, and revived the harmony of the community. No one, in the end, can ignore the transcendent power of taste correctly rendered. General Loewenhielm comes to the realization that "in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible." The other guests become just tipsy enough to open themselves, quite against their will, to the wonder of the material world and to corporeal pleasure. One guest rejects the water that is served late in the dinner, reaching avidly instead for the wine that she first tasted with such visible foreboding. Smiles on the erstwhile dour faces translate an inner well-being, the contentment of simply being. Poignantly, the departing congregants join hands to sing one final hymn as they dance in a circle under the stars in a crystal clear sky: "The clock strikes and time goes by: / Eternity is nigh. / Let us use this time to try / To serve the Lord with heart and mind. / So that our true home we shall find. / So that our true home we shall find." It is, after all, the Christmas season, and the birth of their founder on December 15th precedes by only a few days the birth of their Savior.

Babette remains in the kitchen during the entire dinner. The serving boy moves between the dining room and the kitchen as he follows Babette's careful instructions about what and how much to serve whom in which glass. The camera cuts back and forth between these two rooms, dwelling lovingly on close-ups of the dishes being prepared and being served, the wine poured and sipped. In other words, the cinematic observer sees everything in the harmony of production and consumption. Babette is joined in the kitchen by one guest, the general's coach driver, to whom she serves every dish. In an addition that is at once authentic and comic, his frequently voiced response—"that's good"—expresses the deep satisfaction that the vow of silence will not allow the other guests to express. Only toward the end of the meal does Babette allow herself to savor the magnificent old burgundy that she has dispensed so prodigally. Only at the very end does she eat the incomparable meal that she has prepared (even then she remains standing). When the guests leave, Martine and Philippa come to the kitchen to compliment her on the meal and prepare to say good-bye. Babette quietly reveals that she was the head chef at the Cafï Anglais to whose artistry the general paid such eloquent testimony.

She also stuns her employers in another way: she will not return to France—ever. There is no place for her there; everyone dear to her has died, the world she knew has disappeared. Besides, she has no money. The sisters are dumbfounded to learn that Babette spent her entire lottery winnings on the dinner—just what a dinner for twelve would cost at the Cafï Anglais, she states matter-of-factly. The sisters are taken aback at her sacrifice. "It was not just for you," Babette responds. She has proven her powers, performed her art. She has made her guests happy just as she had at the Cafï Anglais. "That's what Papin knew"—an artist himself, the opera singer recognized their kinship, their common pursuit of artistic excellence, their fulfillment in bringing pleasure. She subscribes to Papin's pronouncement that "Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best." Babette has had a last chance to give of her very best, so that, contrary to what Martine fears, she cannot be poor: "an artist is never poor." For the first time, Philippa embraces her servant in an act of love that at once acknowledges the claims of the artist and her right to sacrifice. Babette will reap one final reward. In this film that balances visions of the hereafter with sights of the here and now, Philippa, the other artist as singer, admits Babette to the paradise of the righteous. Though a Catholic—Papist, in the sisters' lexicon—Babette will dwell in the New Jerusalem promised in the opening hymn and toward which the disciples yearn. In heaven, with its promised meeting of righteousness and bliss, Babette's art will "delight the angels!" Echoing the words that Achille Papin had written to her fourteen years before, Philippa assures Babette that in heaven she will be the artist God meant her to be.

Not surprisingly, the commentary that Babette's Feast has occasioned sets those who are interested in the food against those who engage the religious dimensions of the film. Among the former, beginning with the Copenhagen restaurateur who supervised the presentation of food in the film, we can count the cooks who set out to turn the fabled repast into a real dinner. One of the most prominent French gastronomic critics criticized the film on just this score, condemning the pretentiousness of the feast and the egregious historical error of making a woman head chef in a restaurant such as the Cafï Anglais. Academic commentary, on the other hand, has delved into the religious interpretation, a topic on which French film critics seem to have had little to say. Perhaps the pietistic Lutheranism of the film is as alien for the largely Catholic French as Babette's cuisine was for her Lutheran guests. No one, however, not even the foodies who have made Babette's Feast a cult film, has seriously explored the film as a paradigm for French cuisine, and specifically what that cuisine stands for in the late twentieth century. For it is not the single repast, however glorious, that speaks to French cuisine today; rather, it is that meal within the larger conception of food and the proper relations in the culinary contract that ties cook to producers and to consumers. "I made them happy," Babette says with pride. That happiness is the accomplishment of great art and of great love, of the material with which the artist works, and of the public that she serves.

Its everydayness sets the culinary apart from other arts. Cuisine is a practice of everyday life, to invoke Michel de Certeau a last time—or even better, as the French title of his book has it, cuisine is an art of "making do" (les arts de faire). Babette is an artist of the everyday, but one who also, when given the opportunity, moves in the more exalted public circles of the spectacular. More obviously humble, the cook works with what is available; the spectacular appears in the parallel transformation wrought by the great artist-chef. This dialectic of everyday life confronting extraordinary spectacle plays out in so many circumstances and assumes so many guises as to be constitutive of French cuisine. The connection between the everyday and the spectacular also controls the continuum between cooking and chefing. The culinary roles of cook and chef imperfectly coincide with the status designations of cook and chef. Thought to be a cook and actually the cook for thirteen years, Babette reveals herself to be a great chef. Just as clearly, her "chefing" depends on the cooking that also informs the everyday life of the community.

That Dinesen defied historical accuracy to promote a woman to the official, public status of chef has, I think, to do with a desire to emphasize the connection between culinary extremes. Haute cuisine and everyday cooking lie at different ends of the same continuum. Babette's Feast makes the same point about music. The hymns that provide most of the music in the film articulate and express the faith of the community, just as the duet from Mozart's Don Giovanni that Achille Papin teaches Philippa signifies her situation with him. The seductiveness of the music reinforces the scene of seduction that Papin and Philippa perform and then begin to experience. Philippa, apparently fearful of her growing involvement with Papin, chooses to discontinue her lessons. She refuses a life on the stage, as Babette chooses not to return to France. Yet like Babette, Philippa, Papin's "beautiful soprano of the snows," continues to illuminate the humbler setting. The wonderful, immensely satisfying world of music includes hymns as well as Mozart. Papin is sure that he will hear Philippa's voice in paradise. Both women use their gift in lesser settings to make people happy, to express joy, to illuminate everyday life. It is then altogether fitting that Philippa should be the one to pay homage to Babette as an artist, repeating to Babette the very words that Papin had written her so many years before.

A second article of faith in Babette's Feast is the certainty of the instantaneous and direct power of art. Like grace, like the mercy invoked by the pastor early in the film and the general at the end, art touches individuals of every station, even against their will. Surely it is not stretching things too far to see this story as Dinesen's contribution to the debate over mass culture that was raging in the 1950s when she wrote "Babette's Feast." Against the contemnors of so-called mass society, the film, like Dinesen's short story, proposes an overwhelmingly optimistic, consistently elevated view of art, artists, and society. Against virtually all that we know about the socialization of taste—just ask anyone who has urged a child to try something new—Babette's Feast affirms the immediate accessibility of new and strange foods. The artist creates for the untutored no less than for the connoisseur. The young Philippa, Papin promises, will sing for the emperor but also for the young working girls from the poor neighborhoods. The general articulates his pleasure; his coachman in the kitchen says no more than "that's good," while the others say nothing at all. If the first appreciation is the more knowledgeable, the transformation of the silent diners offers the more eloquent testimony to the power of culinary art.

So, too, the viewers of the film do not need to have experienced "a real French dinner" to fall under the spell of the feast that Babette prepares. Nor do we need to recognize the hymns or identify the works by Mozart and Rossini to be moved by the music and to grasp its significance for the film. These two performing arts, music and cuisine, speak to the senses directly; their effect is all in the moment. Critical appreciation enhances the experience by increasing understanding, but the senses make the primal connection. The film works so well because it joins taste (food) and hearing (music) to the conforming and informing power of sight. Each becomes greater in the presence of the others—much as a fine meal requires companionship and presentation as well as perfect consumption.

Babette's Feast illuminates the connection between culinary production and the act of consumption. Not only is each a function of the other, neither can be conceived without the other. The truism that links production and consumption aside—food exists to be consumed—works about food and about cuisine, like works throughout literary and cinematic history, tend to focus on the one at the expense of the other. Notably, this film appeared as adventurous chefs were capturing the attention of the media in France and abroad. Babette's promotion, or, better yet, her elevation, is appropriate in an increasingly international food culture. To be sure, this feast is Babette's, the Christ figure who sacrifices for the spiritual good and material contentment of the community. Nevertheless, and like the Last Supper on which it is loosely modeled, this feast is all about public participation. Cuisine, this film tells us as it continually cuts back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, is a social relationship.


The incongruity of Babette's cuisine in isolated Jutland is dramatized in this film of many distances. The Danish director worked with a short story set in Norway written in English by a Danish author. Jutland itself is distant from any world that we know. It exists in a world unto itself out of historical time. Yet the concerns of the villagers—to live a righteous life, to dedicate the self to God—are eternal and timeless. Drama enters this self-contained community when outsiders intrude, however momentarily. The aristocratic army officer from the Danish court who has spent time in Paris, the French opera singer, and Babette, the French refugee, insert this tale into history, mark it as a modern fable, and, most important, connect it to the larger world of politics and of art. These outsiders situate the film not vaguely, in a nineteenth century that differs little from the seventeenth, but in the midst of a century wracked by social, economic, and political change. The politics that the film barely hints at—as we shall see, Dinesen's text is much more explicit—make Babette's Feast also a tale of France. In addition, if the political resonance is muted, the artistic context is very much present, through the opera singer from Paris and most of all through Babette's accomplishment in French cuisine.

In contrast with the timelessness of the religious community, the French chronology is remarkably precise. Babette arrives in September 1871. In his letter of introduction, Papin recalls that he had been in Jutland thirty-five years previously, that is, in 1836. Assuming that the sisters were born in the 1820s, they would be in their mid-sixties when Babette makes her festive meal fourteen years after her arrival, thus in 1885. Although thirty-five years places the younger Papin's previous stay in Jutland during the July Monarchy (1830-48), the period that he evokes so lovingly, the era that acclaimed his art, is the Second Empire (1852-70). The regime of Napoleon III went down in humiliating defeat to the Prussians in 1870 and set the scene for the Commune of 1871 that the Third Republic (1870-1940) repressed so cruelly, forcing Babette to flee.

Like Papin's beloved empress, Babette will spend the rest of her life in exile. Her past is the Commune as well as the Cafï Anglais, the brutality of repression as much as the opulence of gastronomy. Her husband and son were executed. She can count herself fortunate to have gotten out of the country alive. She has lost everything except her art. The contemporary engraving shown briefly during Martine's reading of Papin's letter of introduction shows a firing squad at work. (Estimates of the number killed during this period range from 20,000 to 25,000.) The irony of Babette's situation becomes even greater when we realize that the man who proclaimed that the chef at the Cafï Anglais was the only woman worth fighting a duel for—in General Loewenhielm's narrative of his dinner at the Cafï Anglais—was General Galliffet, the man known in leftist circles as the "butcher of the Commune" because of his capricious brutality in executing Communards.

Babette's Feast holds the viewer with the beauty of the here and now and especially with the pleasures of the flesh. It speaks to the senses. Sight and sound supplement the gustatory, for which, in the event, they necessarily substitute. We cannot taste the feast that Babette prepares and her guests consume. Yet though we cannot be moved directly by the foods as they are, we are seduced vicariously, through the vision and the music with which the film envelops the viewer. This focus on the sensual joys of the present defines the film and, I dare say, has everything to do with its original popularity and its subsequent cult status. Just how distinctive a feature this appeal to the sensory is in the film emerges from a comparison with Dinesen's story. At first glance a faithful rendering of the story, the film in fact diverges significantly from the original text. Its lessons differ, and the means of instruction differ as well. Gabriel Axel's film, quite unlike Dinesen's narrative, is a fable for the French, an iconic projection of and for French culinary culture. That Axel is not French only renders the homage to French cuisine all the more striking, all the more worthy of our notice. Its very foreignness allows Babette's Feast the greater testimony to the prestige that continues to accrue to French cuisine abroad as well as at home.

Distinct emphases appear on every level of the film, beginning with chronology. In contrast with the short story on which it is based, Babette's Feast ages the sisters by fifteen years or so, so that they are in their late forties when Babette arrives and in their mid-sixties for the final feast, not, as Dinesen's chronology would have them, in their mid-thirties and late forties respectively. The advanced age of the sisters; the greater expanse of time separating youthful visions and hopes from trials and disappointments in the present; the visibly aged faces; Babette's spending fourteen with the sisters before winning the lottery, not twelve; the presence of death and concern with the hereafter—all reinforce the elegiac quality of the film. The overpowering idea of life ending, the impulse to meditate on one's life course and the choices one has made, the anxious contemplation of the future—render the euphoria produced by the meal more dramatic, the prospect of rejuvenation more entrancing.

If Dinesen's disciples and even General Loewenhielm appear somewhat foolish, her Babette is both mysterious and forceful. When Philippa reproaches Babette for giving away everything she had for their sake, Axel's Babette rectifies quietly and rather sadly, "It was not just for you." In reply to Martine's assertion that she will be poor henceforth, she observes simply, "an artist is never poor." By contrast, Dinesen dwells at length on the same sequence, which is both longer and stronger than in the film. Babette gives a look of perhaps "pity, even scorn," and replies categorically to Martine, "For your sake?…No. For my own." Then, not as a reply but as a claim to distinction, she twice declares, "I am a great artist." Appearances notwithstanding, she will never be poor: "A great artist, Mesdames, is never poor. We have something, Mesdames, of which other people know nothing." Thus, Dinesen depicts a forcefully assertive artist who proclaims her rights, affirms her superiority, and underscores her distinction from the sisters and, indeed, from their entire world. Artists, Dinesen impresses upon us, are a breed apart. The common humanity of which the film makes so much figures minimally in the short story.

The assertiveness of Dinesen's Babette suits a brooding, passionate figure whose unplumbed depths frighten the fearful sisters and whose artistic persona is of a piece with her political personage. In fact, Dinesen makes much more of the political context than does the film. Her Babette comes not simply as a refugee from a civil war in which her husband and son were killed, but as herself an active participant in that war. Papin's letter introduces Babette as a Communard. Arrested as a Pïtroleuse—the term used, Papin explains, for women who used petroleum to set fire to houses—she has "narrowly escaped the blood-stained hands of General Galliffet." The narrowness of her escape is even clearer if we recollect that the French army crushed the Commune at the end of May 1871. Babette arrives at the sisters' cottage the very next month, "haggard and wild-eyed like a hunted animal." Soon she was "held in awe" by them because of her bargaining prowess in the marketplace. For the disciples, she appeared "the dark Martha in the house of their two fair Marys." Speaking little of their language, she would sit brooding silently, "her dark eyes wide open, as enigmatical and fatal as a Pythia upon her tripod." Not surprisingly with such a comparison, the sisters are terrified by the notion that their trusted servant had been an incendiary.

Finally, Dinesen dwells at length upon the cosmic irony of Babette's serving a man who had dined with the very General Galliffet who was responsible for the deaths of her son and husband. The irony is all the greater given the reason that Babette did not return to Paris. All those whom she had served at the Cafï Anglais, the elite whom she battled so fiercely on the barricades of the Commune and whose names she gives, were gone. However cruel, however oppressive, "those people belonged to me, they were mine," because they alone had the understanding to appreciate what a great artist she was. Less than that will not do. She cites Papin: "it is terrible and unbearable to an artist to be encouraged to do, to be applauded for doing, his second best." She will not return to a world that will reward the also-ran. This is the "perspective of tragedy" that so moves the sisters, a tragedy that they sense without understanding. Until she tells them, the sisters have no idea of Babette's art. They can remember none of the dishes that they had eaten. They are most certainly not the ideal public that Babette craves.

Gabriel Axel's film softens Babette considerably, largely by muting her politics and assertiveness while strengthening her portrayal as artist. No mention is made of her past as a Pïtroleuse, and since she arrives in Jutland in September, not June, Babette is more distanced from the bloody events of the Commune. General Galliffet's name is mentioned only once, by General Loewenhielm at dinner, and only in reference to his role as a consummate gastronome. (That Dinesen explains his role in the suppression of the Commune undoubtedly speaks to a sense that few readers would have any notion of General Galliffet.) The irony of Babette's serving Loewenhielm, who once dined with Galliffet, comes only in retrospect and with knowledge that the film does not give. Nor does she list the people who "belonged" to her, describe the world that has disappeared, or say anything about the insufferableness of doing one's second best. Because the film makes us privy to the power of her art, Axel's more self-effacing Babette has no need to tell us how great she is, for we see it. We see for ourselves the transformations that her feast has wrought: the faces illumined, the hearts transformed, the rancor buried, the good fellowship restored, the jubilation and the joy. Above all, this Babette is an artist who communicates with her public, however humble that public may be. She is, in a word, a culinary artist at her best.

Although we cannot actually taste Babette's feast, the film works to convey taste by proxy. In contrast with Dinesen, who details very little about the dishes themselves, no doubt wishing to avoid the pitfalls inherent in gastronomic overwriting, Axel suggests the sensuous pleasures of the gustatory through the equally sensuous enjoyment of sight and sound. The hymns that are sung throughout the film, the duet from Don Giovanni, the piano played by Philippa on different occasions—the music exercises a seduction all its own. The purity of sound draws us along just as Philippa's voice drew Papin to church. By another route, visuals bring the viewer into the universe of the film. The multiple grays, the washed-out blues of the sea and the sky, and blacks dominate the narrative until the feast bursts forth with its brilliant and dramatic colors, the general's resplendent uniform and, most of all, the meal itself: the red of the wine, the deep purple of the ripe figs, the golden pineapple, the copper utensils in the kitchen, the gleaming silver, china, and glassware on the table. It is again fitting that the film alters General Loewenhielm's conclusion, which comes as something of a benediction after his experience of grace at the feast. The realization that Dinesen gives him, that "in this world anything is possible," Axel amends simply but significantly to "in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible." The beauty of this world here and now is to be seen and experienced by all of us. We do ourselves, and God, a disservice when we fail to take pleasure in the beauty that surrounds us. For this beauty dissolves conflict by putting us in touch with another, better world, a world that knows neither acrimony nor animosity.

Just as the meal in the film effaces the discord among the disciples, so, too, Babette's Feast uses the senses to illuminate and transcend the everyday. The film mutes the political because it takes us beyond conflict. We see not only the effects of consumption but also, and most importantly for my fable of French cuisine, the care of preparation. Babette's Feast is a food film because it follows the meal from beginning to end, from the trip to procure foodstuffs through the multiple activities of cooking and serving and the pleasures of dining. Consistent with the emphasis on the construction of beauty, the film glosses over the less appealing, destructive aspects of preparation. There is no hint of how the turtle actually ends up as soup. The closest we come to slaughter is a shot of the quail carcasses in a basket being taken to the garbage. Instead, the film focuses on preparation. The camera closes in on Babette's hands as she cuts the rounds of puff pastry dough, adds caviar and crème fra²che to the blinis, stuffs the quail with foie gras, and assembles it, with the head in place, on its pastry coffin. Walnuts are added to the endive salad, big rounds of hard cheese are cut into serving portions; the Nesselrode pudding is finished with whipped cream, glazed chestnuts, and chocolate sauce. We are almost at table level as each wine is poured into glasses that sparkle like a stained-glass window on a sunny day.

Axel's Babette's Feast shows us that cuisine is not simply the final product put on the table. The process of preparation that the film follows in loving detail makes it abundantly clear that cuisine operates within a vital web of social relations anchored by the cook. Reaching backwards in the culinary sequence to farmers and fishermen, both near and far, Babette's glorious dinner offers a striking illustration of the internationalization of food. Her insistence upon French products for a "real French dinner" makes "frenchification" the absolutely appropriate term. Then there are the men who transport the goods, the young boy who helps in the kitchen and waits on table (and, as in real life, those who clean up)—all the intermediaries who connect production and consumption. Then, and only then, do we encounter the diners at the far end of the culinary chain. Even though Babette remains out of sight in the kitchen, emerging to begin clearing the table only after the guests have departed, the camera cutting back and forth between kitchen and table calls attention to the connections between cook and consumer. The conversations that Babette overhears from the kitchen tell her that the meal is working its magic. Ultimately, the dramas of cooking frame the drama of dining: the end lies in the beginning just as the beginning implies the end. The theological reverberation of this statement is, of course, especially appropriate for a film that makes so much of beginnings and endings.


By any criterion, Babette's Feast is a food film. More than that, it is a French food film, a film of French food, "a real French dinner" presented in amorous particulars. Still more than that, this is a French food film by virtue of the eating order that it represents and proposes for our delight, and that eating order is unequivocally French. Like Proust's Recherche, Babette's Feast resurrects a country that is no more, the France before 1870 that had already disappeared when Babette arrived in Jutland in 1871, was even more obscure when the tale was written in 1952, and had become positively prehistoric by 1987, when the film appeared. Culinary France is an ideal, and France is an idealized country that lives through its cuisine. Babette's Feast constructs something of a legend out of French cuisine, a narrative lived between history and myth, in that such cuisine restores the community of the faithful and resurrects a country. The very distance of the film from France, its foreign author and filmmaker, language and setting, heightens our awareness of the constructed nature of the country that is culinary France.

A glorious banquet allows Babette to give of her very best in her exile from France. It allows her to realize her artistic gift, and to make her public supremely, ineffably happy in a joy that seamlessly merges the spiritual and the corporeal. It also permits her to recall the country that she will never see again. The very names of the foods bring forth the land and its culinary art. From the wines, whose quality is guaranteed by a very particular wine seller in Paris (Chez Philippe, rue Montorgueil), to the quail, these foodstuffs are as talismanic as Proust's madeleine and as memorable. The gesture of reconstruction goes back in literature at least to Virgil's Andromache, Hector's widow whom Odysseus finds in a Trojan landscape that she has constructed in the Greece that holds her captive. Similarly, Babette conjures up the France that she knew and loved, the Paris of the Cafï Anglais whose patrons acclaimed her as "the greatest culinary genius." Her exile is all the more poignant because, like Andromache, she cannot go home again. As she tells the sisters, the France that she knew is no more. She brought it into existence once again if only for a moment—the utopian moment of her feast based on the stunning good fortune of winning the lottery.

As the madeleine dipped in a cup of tea gives inexpressible joy to Proust's narrator by resurrecting his childhood, so Babette's feast carries her and her guests to another, better world. We who watch this feast may also count ourselves among Babette's guests. It is not so much a lost France that the film offers the contemporary viewer as an idealized France that is called into existence by its cuisine. Babette is every French cook and every French chef, the vital link in the culinary chain that metamorphoses the raw to the cooked and the cooked to the miraculously pleasurable. The fable of French cuisine turns out to be a culinary tale for all times and places, for all those cooks who transform eating into dining, and for all those diners who come away from the table transformed.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 187-201 of Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine
©2004, 272 pages, 10 halftones, 11 line drawings
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-24323-8
Paper $22.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-24324-5

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Accounting for Taste.

See also: