We have been a little quiet around here the last couple weeks. Chalk it up to that time of year, when everything gets busier. Here at the LFP, the Fall semester came to an end with the final colloquium and the viewing of the 1987 movie Babette’s Feast. This movie is a staple (at the moment) of the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program and for the last few years, the new cohorts watch it at their inaugural conference. As someone who attends these conferences as an organizer of them, I had not had the chance to actually see the movie (beyond the beginning and the end bits). I was rather eager then to watch it the other week. Of course, I had a degree of trepidation before the viewing. I had been told on several occasions how wonderful this film is and with all that build up, I feared I would be disappointed. Thankfully, I had nothing to fear.
I won’t recap the movie in too much detail, but, as the title suggests, there is a feast. (And how!) The food, its preparation and consumption, is central to the movie. One woman, Babette, seeks to repay the kindness of the two women with whom she comes to live. She is a refugee of sorts, a stranger in language, culture, and religion, and the women (two sisters) don’t hesitate to provide her shelter and a home (albeit spartan).
There are lots of themes to explore in this movie, but the part that resonated the most with me was the kindness that the sisters show Babette, even when they don’t know much about her, other than she is French and a Catholic, or why she has come to their remote small community in Jutland, in Denmark. Oddly enough, in an apparent attempt to respect her privacy or perhaps fear of what they will learn, they never ask. To the sisters who are strict Protestants leading an austere life, French and Catholic in the nineteenth century is a very dangerous combination. After many years of living with the sisters, Babette is presented with an opportunity to leave or at the very least claim some independence in the form of a large sum of money. Her good fortune is timed with the sisters’ desire to have a celebratory dinner for their late father and minister to their aging and dwindling religious congregation. Babette decides to use her windfall to prepare a truly French culinary extravaganza. For the sisters and their congregation, this type of extravagant meal is counter to their understanding a pure, religious life. Yet, the sisters want to be kind to Babette, who has never asked for anything and they and the congregation will risk the harm to their souls, to extend this generosity.
And here is where things get fun. I won’t go into the number of courses, the wine, the amount of food and drink consumed by the men and women attending the meal. But, with each new course, new taste of strange and exotic foods, the once apprehensive people embrace the feast joyfully. The scene becomes warmer and the hard feelings between those gathered around the table melt away. Old stories are told; there is laughter, fellowship, and merriment.
We were still in the midst of the semester here at Valparaiso University when we viewed this movie. I went away wondering about how much kindness I show my neighbor, my colleagues, and my students at this busy time of the year. I could not help to think about my students and all their struggles and trials as they came to the end of the semester. What kindness could I show my students and they made great efforts to do everything exactly right? ( They worry about everything: “Do you want page numbers? And does it all have to be in Times New Roman font size 12? Do I have to use citations and will you take off points if I don’t put it in the right format?”) At the end of the semester, students (the little dears) are weary of assignments, reading, and writing; how much grace should I give them when they come to me with endless reasons for why they are not prepared for class, or haven’t finished that paper (especially when I am behind on my grading of their other assignments and late on submitting a conference paper to the commentator of my panel)? I could not help but take pity on them. (Within reason, of course. I may be a softy but there are still standards to be met.)
As the semester ended, we here at the LFP have had our own gatherings over meals to celebrate the end of the term, the Christmas season that is now upon us, and to wish all travelers well. We of course have had daily offerings of baked goods in our common area. No one can say we haven’t feasted well over the last week or so (maybe not as well as Babette’s dinner guests). It was around the table, over a meal, that we have laughed and shared stories. Like the good people in Babette’s Feast, as they strolled off into the evening to their homes, well-feasted, we head off to our respective families and holiday celebrations. We are busy, we are hurried to get everything done on time, but we take with us the joy of the time together.
If you want to read more about Babette’s Feast, see Caroline Simon’s Disciplined Heart: Love, Destiny, and Imagination (see especially the epilogue). You can also read more in this interesting article by Thomas S. Hibbs, “Hungry Souls.“* Of course, you could read the short story on which the movie is based, which is in Isak Denisen’s Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard.
– Mary Beth
*Caroline Simon and Thomas Hibbs are co-mentors of the Fourth Cohort of Lilly Graduate Fellows. Dr. Simon is Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning at Hope College. Dr. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics & Culture and Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.