58

As an adult I’ve celebrated my birthday with chosen family much more often than I have with birth family. That’s more a function of distance than anything else. Quite plainly, being 1,300 miles (in the case of my sisters and father) or 3,000 miles (in the case of my brother) away prohibits spending me from spending that day with them, much as I’d like to have them around. So, I’ve gathered with close friends over the years to celebrate my passage around the sun, usually by serving my version of an Afternoon Tea.
 
This year was my most ambitious menu ever, and reflected my affinity for Babette Hersant, the title character in Isak Dinesen’s short story, and the 1987 film written and directed by Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast. I know I’ve mentioned her before, and that my friend Grace gave me the nickname “Babette” after she attended my first 7-course dinner but here’s bit more about the story, and how I relate to it.

Babette is an exiled French woman who comes into the employ of two elderly sisters, heads of a small Christian sect on the island of Jutland in the 1870s. For 14 years Babette cooks for, and serves, the sisters and their tiny congregation, becoming a vital part of their community. One day she gets a letter from France, informing her that she’s won the lottery (someone plays it for her every year) – 10,000 francs. After collecting the money, she asks the sisters for a favor: she wants to cook and serve a French dinner in honor of the what would have been the 100th birthday of their father, the Patriarch of their sect. Babette prepares the most exquisite, most extravagant multi-course meal any of them have ever experienced.
 
Course after course of culinary artistry arrives at the table and little by little a kind of magic overcomes the guests, one of which is a Danish General, who claims that every dish set before him is something he’s eaten years ago at the Cafe Anglais in Paris. As the diners fill themselves with Babette’s offerings, they also fill themselves with the kind of love, compassion, and forgiveness that has been missing from their spirits for quite some time.
 
In the end, the sisters praise Babette for the amazing meal, and lament that she’ll be leaving them to return to Paris. Babette informs them that she won’t be returning because there’s no one there for her; everyone she’s ever loved is dead. And she has no money! The sisters are confused. What of the 10,000 francs? “When I was the head chef at the Cafe Anglais, a meal such as this cost 10,000 francs,” she tells them. And when they lament that she’ll be poor for the rest of her life, she says that an artist is never poor.
 
An artist is never poor. Every time I research a recipe, mix ingredients, pop tins and pans and skillets into the oven, I have that declaration in the back of my head. I do not claim to be an artist by any measure, but I do claim that as my aspiration. I aspire to be Babette, not just for the elegance and beauty of the dishes she created, but also for the effects her cooking had on those who partook of it.
 
And so, for my 58th birthday, I opened my own Café Anglais. The menu was ambitious and I didn’t quite make it all happen, but there are times our reach must exceed our grasp – so that we have more for which to strive. I was thrilled to present Michele and my friends with those dishes, into which I poured my heart and creative spirit. I may not have matched the elegance and artistry, but the smiles and sounds of appreciation from my guests told me I succeeded in my main goal, of lightening and refreshing their souls. I know the whole experience filled me with joy and satisfaction, which is reward enough.
 

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