Bernie Sanders counsel on talking politics at Thanksgiving:
Babette’s Feast is a film that is usually brought up as a revival at Thanksgiving. It is really a film for the Winter Solstice. The special date in the film is, in fact, December 15th. Try to get the original full-length version, two hours 50 minutes, if you can; the abridged version is about an hour shorter.
Some spoilers here.
When we meet Babette in the film she is a refugee from the French Revolution (the big one), translated as “civil war” in the subtitles. She is taken in by two, now elderly, sisters. The first part of the film deals with how it came to be that these two women have Babette in their village on an outlying coast of Norway. Fourteen years later Babette asks permission of the sisters to prepare a French dinner for an upcoming special occasion. The sisters do not know what this means, but allow it. As the ingredients begin arriving the villagers become concerned, fearful, and suspicious. They agree to endure it and not speak of it.
Chefs at high-end restaurants try to duplicate Babette’s feast at Thanksgiving time. They do it based on what can be seen in the film as the preparations are interwoven with the guests arriving and the presentation is interwoven with the serving. One of the dishes is called Blinis Demidorff for which there is no historical reference. I believe Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen, named the dish after Élisabeth Dmitrieff, a Russian emigrant who founded the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded.
Some women organized a feminist movement, following on from earlier attempts in 1789 and 1848. Thus, Nathalie Lemel, a socialist bookbinder, and Élisabeth Dmitrieff, a young Russian exile and member of the Russian section of the First International (IWA), created the “Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded” on April 11, 1871. The feminist writer André Léo, a friend of Paule Minck, was also active in the Women’s Union. Believing that their struggle against patriarchy could only be pursued through a global struggle against capitalism, the association demanded gender equality, wages equality, the right of divorce for women, the right to secular education, and professional education for girls. They also demanded suppression of the distinction between married women and concubines, and between legitimate and illegitimate children.
Another dish in the film, Cailles en Sarcophage, birds in coffins, represent those killed in the war including Babette’s son and husband.
Babette is a refugee from France because she could be perceived on either side of the revolution. She could be seen as part of the aristocracy because she was the famous chef of Café Anglais (a real place). We learn from the written story she was on the side of the resistance and “I loaded their guns.”
Karen Blixen had just published Out of Africa when the Third Reich invaded Poland. Blixen obtained a position as a war correspondent and assigned to write from three cities. She went to Berlin first. Invited to provide signed copies of her books to the fuhrer, she “caught a cold and couldn’t go.” Germany invaded Denmark, her home, a week after she left Berlin. During the Occupation word leaked that Nazi’s were planning to send 8000 Jews to concentration camps. Through Denmark’s coordinated effort of an underground Resistance 7200 Jews were safely moved from that fate. As part of that effort Blixen had opened her home to hide Jews. A neighbor reported that there were Nazis in the garden and Jews in the kitchen. When they came to inspect her house, Blixen entertained the Nazis with sarcasm and insults while harboring Jews in her basement.
In a later story contained in Last Tale1 Karen Blixen wrote about her father’s generation and the transfer of influence from aristocracy to bourgeoisie, the “eleventh hour of the Danish aristocracy.” Power is shifting from the land to the cities and banks. In that story a professor tells an audience of aristocrats that, “their fidelity to a system of fixed values and relations has become obsolete; their grandchildren (our billionaires) will travel to the moon, but they will fight no duels, and commit no hari-kiri; they will also be incapable of understanding tragedy.”
Babette, as the artist-chef who gives all she has to deliver her dinner, brings peace and harmony all who partake. In this way Bernie Sanders is the artist and the us are the beneficiaries. Bernie’s art is unfolding now as we live and watch and help with the preparations going on around us.
Published with Anecdotes of Destiny, 1957. Some notes for this article are from Isak Dinesen, The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman. ↩