Food as Grace

February 1, 2010 § 1 Comment

In the Spanish language there is a word that has no equivalent in English. This word is la sobremesa and it refers to the conversation that is shared during a meal. La sobremesa is something so special it has its own word in Spanish. I think it points to an understanding about the meal and food that has been lost on Americans to a large extent. We have our fast food and our tv dinners. We have restaurants where we feel pressured to leave if we are staying too long. We are so consumed with using food as a means of energy and profit that we have lost the mysterious essence of food as a means of grace.

There are two movies that immediately come to mind when I think about food turning into a way of dispensing grace into the world. These are Chocolat (2000, Hallstrom) and Babette’s Feast (1987, Axel) and, interestingly enough, they are both set in Europe. They also both feature bold female protagonists who use their culinary skills to enact change and offer grace to people that are stuck in legalistic ways of living.

In Chocolat the main conflict exists between Vianne (Juliette Bincoche) and the mayor of the town (Alfred Molina). Vianne is an anomaly in his town. She is swept in by the wind during the Lenten season, wearing bright clothing and opening a chocolate shop, filled with a myriad of sensual, seductive chocolate. This sets her at odds with the mayor, a strict church man, who runs his town with a long list of rules to keep things in order. The mayor has his hands on everything except Vianne, and as the movie progresses, his hold on the town begins to slip through his tightly clenched fist due to Vianne’s unconditional acceptance of the town’s outcasts and the intense draw of her wonderful chocolate.

The movie emphasizes the food’s power in many ways. Vianne has a mystical quality, wherein she is able to guess the favorite chocolate treat of everyone in the movie. When she hands them their “favorite” and they take that first bite the chocolate ceases to be merely a piece of chocolate and becomes a transcendent moment in time. Their eyes close and flutter and an undeniable smile creeps ever so slowly over their face as the camera slowly zooms in. This is food becoming more than food.This is food, made with love and given freely, opening a part of the soul that has been closed for a long time.

This is seen most powerfully in Vienne’s interactions with Armande (Judi Dench), the grumpy old woman whose shop Vianne is renting. One day Armande ventures into the store and Vienne gives her a cup of hot chocolate laced with chili powder. Armande takes a sip, her eyes widen, the camera zooms in on her smile and a moment later Armande is sharing old childhood stories with Vianne. The food has shown grace to Armande, one of the town’s outcasts, and she has responded by opening up a part of herself that was long ago hidden deep in the recesses of her soul.

This emphasis on the food is not just evident in how it interacts with the citizens of the town, but also in how it is seen through the eyes of the camera. The camera lingers on chocolate, glories in its making and steadfastly watches people consuming it. During the movie Armande has Vianne make a feast for her seventieth birthday. This feast is filmed slowly and sensually, focusing on the decadent creations of food and chocolate and in the people’s euphoric reactions to the consumption of it. While we watch this, we sense that there is something deeper happening. This food is drawing these people together; making them into a community of fellow diners and helping them leave their past troubles behind.

Finally, we see the transformative power of grace in one of the final scenes of the movie. The mayor has reached the end of his rope, breaks into Vianne’s store and begins destroying the chocolate in her display window. With the chocolate flying everywhere as he smashes it a small piece lands on his lip. His tongue quivers as he tentatively licks the chocolate off his lip, breaking his Lenten fast. As soon as this is done, he begins to gorge himself with the chocolate until he falls asleep in the display window covered in chocolate, only to be awoken by the priest and Vianne the next day, which happens to be Easter Sunday.  We see in Vianne’s reaction the outpouring of grace to the mayor. She promises not to tell anyone and lets him go on his way. The movie concludes and we see that the mayor’s life has not just been changed by Vianne, but also by his weakness in consuming the chocolate. The food was a very unlikely agent in changing his very outlook on life.

Babette’s Feast plays out differently than Chocolat but it is concerned with many of the same things. Babette (Stephane Audran) is a French woman who finds herself in a small Danish village, where she is taken in by sisters Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), who are daughters of the revered and deceased minister of the small town. They agree to give her shelter and she in turn offers to serve as their chef and take care of their house. Throughout the movie we learn about the sister’s lives and how their strict father kept them in the village even though they both had chances to leave. We don’t learn much about Babette, however, and we don’t need to until the movie begins to draw near the feast which its title refers to.

The sisters wish to throw a party for their father’s 100th anniversary and Babette, who recently has won a lottery, offers to cook for it. The sisters reluctantly agree, but tell all their guests to not comment on the food that might be cooked because it might be very different.  What the sisters don’t know is that Babette has prepared a feast unlike anything they have ever tasted. The meal is luxurious, expensive and radically infringes on the austere way of living practiced by the villagers. Babette begins to serve them and accordingly to their agreement none of the villagers show any sign of enjoyment or speak about the food in any way. But as the feast continues the joy building up inside of them becomes impossible to contain.

These villagers, who have been living under a legalistic faith that has no room for the pleasures of this earth, begin to experience true grace through the very things they have shunned for many years. As they eat foreign delicacies and drink expensive wine, they begin to experience the many blessings of the good earth, created to be enjoyed. The meal concludes and there has been a rebirth, but the greatest part of the story is yet to be told. Babette used the entirety of her lottery winnings to pay for the feast. In an amazing act of sacrificial love, Babette gave up all the wealth she had gained to dispense grace to the villagers. She did it through food.

In both these films grace is given through food. Food is a powerful thing, both in of itself and also because of the community it creates around a shared table. Food should be embraced as something mystical and powerful, not merely as a way to gain energy or to make a quick profit. In this way, perhaps the concept of la sobremesa can be redeemed for America and food can reach its highest potential.


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