When I was in college I fell in love with the writing of the Danish writer, Karen Blixen (1885-1962). The first book I saw of hers was a fabulously beautiful edition of her first book, Out of Africa, that was edited by President Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Onassis. That book was heavily illustrated with paintings by one of her African workers, Kamante. I will write about Kamante's paintings in another Newsletter. Today, I'd like to keep the focus on our special December food issue. Karen Blixen wrote under the pen name of Isak Dinesen--Dinesen was her name before she married. She became famous for her short stories. And of her short stories, she became most famous for one: Babette's Feast.
It is a story with many, many 'abouts'. Certainly, one can say it is a story about a meal--a feast that Babette makes for her employers and friends. It is a meal that is a pure expression of love, of art, of generosity in many senses. The meal the story is about is a gift that goes far beyond the food on the table. It is the biggest gift that Babette could give to anyone.
But, of course, all good stories need a problem. And one of the problems is that the people she is making the meal for, her Danish employers and friends, have never taken an interest in food. In fact, they worry that taking an interest in food is wrong. The meal Babette makes for them is so fabulous and so outside their usual experience that each person who sat at that table was changed.
Babette is French and in Paris she was a renowned and celebrated cook. But, through the fortunes of life, she ends up working in Denmark. Let me just say, that the food culture of Paris and the food culture of rural Denmark at the time this story takes place (about 150 years ago) are at opposite extremes. The people she lives amongst in Denmark are emotionally very closed. They tend not to express their feelings and they are suspicious of pleasure. In fact, their religion is distrustful of pleasure, and so are they.
After working in this house in Denmark for almost fifteen years, Babette comes into some money. What she does with it is make a dinner like the meals she used to cook in Paris. Isak Dinesen's story is all about that meal. How it came about, what she cooked, what meant to her, and what it meant to the people who ate it. It is not a story written for young readers, but I do think that some of you will find it engaging--and of course, the adult readers of the newsletter should all read it! A movie was made from it which you can rent for a few dollars. Like the book, this was made for adults, so I suggest watching it with your parents or grandparents. Many of them may have already seen it, as the movie won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1988.
Tell us your food stories!
Babette's Feast is a wonderful story partly because it is all about food--and at the same time nothing to do with food at all. It is really about a moment in history, the people in the story, their different cultures, their feelings, and the ways those can develop and change though social interactions like a meal.
Many of you will be living in households in which one parent is from one food culture and the other parent from another. Or you have a grandparent who was born in another country and whose food is special or very different from what you are used to. When my daughter was in pre-school we were invited to a birthday party of a classmate. Her mother is from the Philippines. Let me tell you something. I think unless you are from the Philippines yourself, you will not believe the feast that was cooked for that five-year-old's birthday party. There was so much food! So many different dishes, savoury and sweet: there was real energy around this food. This was not a table of sandwiches and cookies. Of course, this meal that the girl's mother made for her birthday was a meal of love. And of course, she made for her daughter the kind of meals that her mother had made for her. Her father is not from the Philippines, and he is vegetarian. The birthday food of his childhood would have been very different.
If you have different food cultures within your family, or those of friends, or can think of a story idea that revolves, somehow, around food and culture, please start writing! Or produce an image that says something that words can't quite convey. We want to receive your food stories and artworks by October 10.
It was a dark, cloudy evening when Father told us the news. Our family was gathered around the worn dinner table in the small kitchen of our farmhouse. My father was sitting in his usual seat at the head of the table, his callused hands clasped together and his elbows resting on the faded tablecloth. He looked from me to my eleven-year-old brother, James, and finally to my mother. Her eyes looked sad as she met his nervous gaze. They had been strangely quiet all through dinner. As eleven- and thirteen-year-old children, my brother and I rarely spoke at the table unless we were spoken to.
Mother took a deep breath. “Jack,” she said quietly. “What’s done is done. We must tell the children.” She sighed and brushed a strand of blond hair out of her brown eyes.
Father nodded. His face was lined with sorrow, which startled me. He was a strong man. Everything about him seemed sturdy. He stood six feet tall, broad-shouldered and muscular, with sunburned skin from years of working in the cornfields of our farm in upstate New York. It was usually hard to tell his inner emotions because he never let them show. /...more