Mushroom consomme’ with asparagus dumpling, watermelon radish, baby greens and chili oil…Spring pea & Carrot Salad with shaved rainbow carrot, pickled cucumber, hijiki seaweed, Parmesan, nori cashews & orange-mustard vinaigrette…Alaskan Day Boat Halibut with Chanterelle mushroom, fava beans, cherry tomatoes, quinoa tabbouleh, cinnamon, ginger beer gastrique & smoked fumet…Espresso alongside dessert of whipped chocolate ganache, almond brownie, orange caramel & vanilla.
That was my favorite meal from a recent vacation with Bob and Sheila Martin, Beck and Lauren Martin, and my wife, at a restaurant that is 100% powered by wind energy, called Root Down. So yes, it’s a trendy chic hippy-dippy Denver hot spot, but after paying the check, I thought about a couple of wonderful lines from Babette’s Feast, a short story by Isak Dinesen, who also wrote the book Out of Africa, “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
The waiter asked if we wanted dessert, I said give us the first four listed at the top of the menu. There is a fine line between gluttonous indulgence and eating sensibly. It was such a memorable meal partly because I had to check my credit card balance after paying because it was, well, a lot. But not 10,000 francs like in the story Babette’s Feast.
So I thought about how those who share great food and friendship are never poor even if they have nothing else, and of two great quotes from Babette’s Feast.
The first great quote is a toast after the feast prepared by Babette. General Lorens Löwenhielm, now an old Swedish cavalry officer and once a young dashing suitor of Martine, the object of his unrequited love, is now famous and married into royalty. As the various never-before-seen meal ingredients arrive from Paris and preparations commence, the pious sisters, Martine and Phillipa, begin to worry that the meal will become a sin of sensual luxury, if not some form of devilry.
In a hasty conference, the sisters and the congregation agree to eat the meal, but to forego speaking of any pleasure in it, and to make no mention of the food during the dinner. It’s comical to watch the congregants attempt to not enjoy something truly remarkable as it overwhelms them. As a man of the world and former attaché in Paris, Lorens is the only person at the table qualified to comment on the meal. He regales the guests with abundant information about the extraordinary food and drink, comparing it to a meal he enjoyed years earlier at the famous “Café Anglais” in Paris.
Although the other celebrants refuse to comment on the earthly pleasures of their meal, Babette’s gift breaks down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them physically and spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.
“There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”
After this once-in-a-lifetime meal, the sisters assume that Babette will now return to Paris. However, when she tells them that all of her money is gone and that she is not going anywhere, the sisters are aghast. Babette then reveals that she was formerly the head chef of the Café Anglais, and tells them that dinner for 12 there has a price of 10,000 francs.
Martine tearfully says, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life”, to which Babette replies, (this is the second great quote)
“An artist is never poor.”
Philippa then says: “But this is not the end, Babette.. In Paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be” and then embraces her with tears in her eyes saying: “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”, which is how the story ends as well as the movie which was made in 1987.
Here’s a clip of the General’s Speech from this incredibly simple but remarkable movie…but don’t watch it hungry!