Babette’s Feast 2.0: Scandinavia House
In Isak Dinesen’s classic culinary fable “Babette’s Feast,” the titular Babette seeks refuge from the Paris Commune in the home of two elderly Danish sisters. There, she works as a chef, and after winning a French lottery decides to cook an elaborate six-course meal for the sisters as a gesture of her gratitude. Babette prepares buckwheat cakes with caviar, and gathers papayas, pineapples, glacéed fruits and fresh figs. She serves cailles en sarcophages, a dish of small quails dressed in black truffles and foie gras and laid to rest in delicate coffins of pastry. At Babette’s table, there is turtle soup; there are babas aux rhum; there is Veuve Clicquot in every glass. Dinesen’s story is a parable of self-sacrifice and artistic transcendence—in trading her wealth for a night of earthly pleasures, the exiled Babette finds spiritual solace.
In name, the “Babette’s Feast 2.0” dinner reading series is in homage to Dinesen’s Babette. Yet there was no turtle soup at this gathering, nor was there roasted quail. Instead, there were plates of Danish smørrebørd with liver pate, cured salmon, pickled beets, and bacon. There was fresh sourdough bread, dense and tangy, and Danish malt bread, the color of winter ale. No Clicquot, but plenty of red wine. There were finger bowls filled with fresh butter soft enough for dipping.
The readings, too, strayed from the spirit of Dinesen’s “Babette”. Though the evening’s five authors conjured scenes of mealtime and family gatherings, these were not stories of transcendence, but of unspoken traumas and mental illnesses, of moving cars and haunted households, of damaged families and damaged neurology.
Danish author Christian Jungersen began the program with a reading from his novel You Disappear. In the book’s opening scene, a family gathers not around a dinner table, but in a car winding its way through Majorca. The father drives, a teenage son sits in the backseat, and the voice of the mother, anxious and weary, serves as the story’s entry point. Suddenly the car swerves, jumps a barrier, and crashes into an embankment. Despite the intensity of this brief but acute moment of trauma, an even greater disaster looms: the father, we will learn, has a brain tumor deep in his gray matter that has been gradually altering his personality. You Disappear is a story of culpability and blame that delves into questions of free will. Are we forgiven of sins precipitated by our biology? Can identity be at all separated from the cranial slab of meat that assembles it?
Following Jungersen’s reading, A.M. Homes read from her novel May We Be Forgiven. Homes’s novel, too, opens amidst a family gathering, and already, things seem amiss. There is the fine china slicked with gristle, the Thanksgiving bird’s carcass picked clean, and later, in the kitchen, a curt kiss between a wife and her husband’s brother. Like in Jungersen’s novel, an even greater disaster is imminent. We learn that by the end of the week, the family’s patriarch will have crashed a car, killed three people, and left his family in total ruin. Here, too, there is a sense that forces outside of the family’s understanding may be at play—there are vague implications of brain damage, an age-old bitterness between siblings, and a brother’s psychosis that has gone for years either unnoticed or unacknowledged.
The readings from Tomas Bannerhed and Steinunn Sigurðardóttir followed a similar thematic course. In Bannerhed’s novel The Ravens, a young boy with a suicidal father watches a cloud of ravens circling his family’s farm and dreams of escape. Sigurðardóttir read a passage from her book Heart Place, in which a female character, while driving from Reykjavik to the east coast of Iceland, converses with her dead mother in a series of absurd and faintly troubling dialogues.
The night’s final reading was from poet-activist Bob Holman. Holman, co- founder of the Endangered Language Alliance, recited a poem in Welsh while peppering the lyrics with off-the-cuff English translations. This poem, in a language that future generations may never understand, served as a fitting reminder that perhaps all of these family theatrics—these fights, these falling outs, these traumas, both petty and profound—will one day vanish, as the very words that compose them will someday, inevitably, fall into extinction.
Laura Preston is a painter and writer based in Brooklyn, NY, where she works as the Editorial Assistant for A Public Space. Her work can be found here.