The movie, "Babette's Feast" was released in the late 80's, when our little ones were preschoolers. I saw it at a local avant-garde theater where foreign films were highlighted. These were our lean years, when we ate a lot of generic foods, mac and cheese, ramen soups, Velveeta and hamburger. The movie was a welcome experience for this penny-pinching housewife; it was filled with good cooking, humor, hope, forgiveness and the ultimate in humanity.
In a nutshell, two sisters, Martina and Phillipa, live in a village on the coast of Denmark. They are the daughters of a minister of a religious congregation that practices austerity in the hope of celestial salvation. These sisters are serious about their ministry - they have carried it on after their father's death. One sister has rejected a potential husband in favor of her ministry, the other rejected a brilliant operatic career for a life of denial and spiritual renewal.
At one point, a disheveled Babette turns up on their doorstep. She is seeking asylum from the ravages of the French civil war and is only wanting to work for the two sisters as they continue their ministry. They allow her to stay with them, give her a room, and she begins working for the sisters. Within their poverty, she manages to feed her two rescuers as well as the congregation in general.
Years pass, and decades later, Babette has won a small lottery. As the anniversary of their father's birth nears, the sisters allow Babette to create a meal to honor his life. But they do it with trepidation, since self-denial is a cornerstone of their salvation. They invite members of the congregation to sup with them but the sisters insist that nobody should enjoy the food.
And Babette creates a feast. As we learn at the end of the movie, she was a famous French chef at the time of the civil war and had prepared meals for many heads of state when she lived in Paris. Her husband and son were killed in the war, and she fled France to save her life.
Tortoise soup, quail, cheeses, great wines and other delights of the earth are prepared in Babette's humble kitchen. And the sisters, in the ultimate act of charity, agree to eat the meal but not enjoy it. It doesn't take long for redemption to enter the dynamic!
In the end, the sisters have learned the complexities of love, forgiveness and salvation. Babette has rewarded them for their years of protection in the only way she knew how. And she spent every last cent she won in the lottery. And the viewer, we have the unmitigated delight of watching all enjoy a meal that defies description.
In the 90's, I'd play the movie on video and try to get the boys to watch it - failing miserably. But I also concocted my own "Babette's Feast" that was operational - within my budget and within my talents. This began an annual celebration of Christmas Day, where we all ate well, enjoyed salvation, and I celebrated the season of loving and giving by preparing a good meal for my family. I have to admit, the guys liked that part of it!
We've had a Babette's Feast of sorts since then. The menu has evolved, with the exception of one year when I decided to flambe a goose, and has remained pretty much the same. We start with crab coctails, and progress through multiple courses to the ultimate in Christmas desserts, a Buche de Noel. The meal takes several hours, the kids had to use the proper silverware ( OK, stainless steel, but you know what I mean) and they even got sips of wine! All in all, we have a blast.
The following is the normal meal we have when we celebrate Christmas. It's less French, less Danish, and less austere than most holiday meals. But it does remind us of how blessed we are on this earth.
French Onion Soup (a la Julia Child)
Prime Rib Roast (a la The Joy of Cooking)
Cheese and fruit platter
Mollie's Buche de Noel
In later entries, I'll write the recipes for the ones I've morphed over the years, but a copy of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and the Rombauers' "The Joy of Cooking" are all you need for the soup and roast. We serve local wines, except one year we had a French Sauterne at the end of the meal and another year we had French wine that some friends had given us. In addition bread was a constant as well as sparkling water. And yes, butter was everywhere!
Roger and Joy are coming up, pre-Christmas, to celebrate with us and enjoy another Babette's (Mollie's) Feast. We plan on spending the day gabbing, cooking, sipping wine and ultimately sitting down for a wonderful family tradition.
The meal is pricey, but I usually had a little money squirreled away for this once-a-year extravaganza.
So if you are looking for someway to make austerity and abundance a Christmas celebration, here's one way. Get your DVD and start cooking!