Update on ‘Babette’s Feast': A Parable of French Politics and Cookery from the Age of Revolutions

Babette's FeastBabette book cover DanishAs an epicurian (married to a chef-de-cuisine, how could I not be in love with food?) “Babette’s Feast” continues to haunt my thoughts. And now, with some recent discoveries, I am more convinced than ever of its debt to revolution. And the need for a remake!
A few thoughts on my discoveries, to intrigue you:

- On the feisty spirit that emerges in Danish!
Thanks to the great book by Frantz Leander Hansen, The Aristocratic Universe of Karen Blixen (2003), nowadays a more bracing and sober accounting is available to English-language readers. Hansen proves that Dinesen, in rewriting the tale for Danish audiences, reinforced the revolutionary tone and threatening aspect of her heroine. Fantastic linguistic analysis! Thanks FLH!*

- On “Babette’s” Sympathy to La Commune and its Ideals
The 2003 translation of the 1891 history of La Commune by Isak Dinesen’s father, Wilhelm Dinesen Paris sous la Commune, Translated from the Danish by Denise Bernard-Folliot, provides the historical subtext that was hugely important to Dinesen: a fact that has been ignored by most readers. WD was very sympathetic to the ideals of La Commune, and this book should be a “must” for anyone seeking a thoughtful eye-witness account of the terrible events. Thanks DBF!

- Third, tucked in the stacks of Hesburgh Library at ND, I found a copy of the 1952 Danish translation by Jørgen Claudi with the fabulous cover illustration featured here. This rendition makes a startling contrast with the tasteful and cleaned-up rendition presented by Gabriel Axel, no?

In my work-in-progress, these elements are juxtaposed to the film and show how much stronger and more menacing the heroine is in the original text (especially in Dinesen’s Danish version). Dinesen’s character does not forget the past or the utopian hopes she once harbored for La Commune. Rather she transforms them into the ultimate beau geste of a consummate artist and an unrepentant radical. For the last supper of Babette’s Feast is not a liturgical rewriting of silent sacrifice but rather a sadly misunderstood celebration of a lost era. However no one realizes it except Babette. (And her new readers today!)

Hope you enjoyed this little taste of work-in-progress. More to come… jd
(updated 3/15/13)

* Thanks are also due to Lise Kure-Jensen who notes that one of the interesting challenges of studying the work of Isak Dinesen is that, after writing her stories in English, she translated many of them back into Danish (her native tongue) and made significant changes along the way. Most notably, she made the Danish translation of “Babette” WILDER! See LKJ, “Isak Dinesen in English, Danish, and Translation: Are We Reading the Same Text?” in Isak Dinesen: Critical Views, ed. Olga Anastasia Pelensky (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993), pp. 314-321.

The Raw and the Cooked, Or Why Politics Matters in ‘Babette’s Feast’

Despite its popularity as a “food film” and icon of the Slow Food movement, one must admit that Babette’s Feast (directed by Axel Gabriel, 1986) disappoints. In its saccharine treatment of the relations between Babette and her employers, Gabriel’s film fails to honor the spirit of Isak Dinesen’s original, published in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1950 and subsequently reprinted in Dinesen’s final collection, Anecdotes of Destiny (1958). Why does this matter? Because in softening the edges of Babette’s character, the film ignores her political force and transformative potential—a force all the more urgent for the 2010s, when women from Sana’a to Seattle have been mobilizing for political change with astonishing energy and hope. “Babette” deserves better.

I believe Babette’s story is more interesting as a parable of specifically French politics than as a “food film,” and that it is indebted to two icons of French womanhood whose identities are deeply invested in food, fire, and revolution. In Dinesen’s heroine we can hear distant echoes of both the poissarde–the fishmonger or market woman of the French Revolution—and the pétroleuse or fire-starter of the Commune. “Babette’s Feast” allows the lineage from the poissarde to the pétroleuse to come into focus because its heroine is not only a cook she is also a former pétroleuse. And even if the politics of her past were muted by the film-maker in 1986, the relationship between food, fire and revolution is too potent a mix to ignore today.

The film’s shortcoming is unsurprising when one realizes how apolitical most interpretations of Isak Dinesen’s work and her heroine have been. In order to bring this lost subtext back into light, I am developing a short work that follows three moves: first, a quick glance at two moments in French political history will reveal the cultural work done by the poissarde and the pétroleuse in the revolutionary eras of 1789-94 and 1871. Second, textual analysis of culinary allusions and narrative asides in “Babette’s Feast” will demonstrate how Dinesen’s heroine incarnates both the pride of a culinary genius and the pétroleuse’s menace to society. Finally, a comparison of the story’s finale will show how the book’s heroine—unlike her avatar on the screen—transforms radicalism into a different kind of rigor, a more life-giving and artistic ambition than film-goers can see. In her portrayal of an appealing working–class woman who is both an unrepentant revolutionary and an authentic artist, Dinesen’s tale reveals a stronger affirmation of human potential than has yet been realized.

Any film-makers out there? Time for a remake, a truly revolutionary rendition of “Babette’s Feast.” Stay tuned for the fiery details…

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