Isak Dinesen sets a table seated with players in a chess game of fate. This story resolves with benevolence only time teaches us, a gift to read, rivaling any work of short fiction. The complex interrelation of the characters, the lush detail, and the unexpected resolution are testament to Dinesenâ€™s skill.Â This story is as much a meditation on art and craft as it is love and faith.Â For Dinesen and for anyone committed to being the best artist they can be, it moved me so to read that I found myself in the hazy memories of a lifetime told in dinners.
For my high school prom, the Ex-Husband took me to one of the best restaurants outside of Washington DC.Â Romantic and historic, we shared magnificent Chateaubriand. I wore a floor length ivory gown and bore a stunning, tragic resemblance to Mamie Eisenhower.Â The Ex-Husband had a terrible fever, but soldiered through, though in the middle of the night a day later, crashing on my parentâ€™s couch, he began to recite the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and I grew concerned. He lived, of course, and when we discussed the details of this for my crack research for this review, he reminded me of the grilled salad they had, living vividly in both our minds, sixteen or so years after the meal.
The next dinner was at a French place on International Drive, long gone. I remember the bread basket, with tall shards of flatbreads studded with sesame seeds, and a crusty baguette. I had a pot au feu so divine it was as if I truly experienced vegetables for the first time. We finished with crĂ¨me brulee expertly done, the intoxicating crack of spoon on sugar top with a silken inside. So inspired by this meal, nine months later, give or take, we welcomed our son into the world. Now, that is a moving feast, Babette.
For our fifth anniversary, we went to Arthurâ€™s 27. They sponsored cooking shows on PBS and though I knew it would be very expensive, I convinced the Ex-Husband to go. I donâ€™t remember what I wore, and I donâ€™t remember a thing we discussed that night. But I remember the amuse-bouche plated on our arrival, a tiny tartlet of savory cheese, and a perfect blackberry dusted in gold on top. I wanted to applaud. We dined slowly, and I believe it was a rare meat-eating phase for me, because I had squab, served roasted and with its own liver truffled on top in a wine reduction that might have been velvet. Dessert was soufflĂ© with crĂ¨me anglaise. The fireworks at the Magic Kingdom exploded at eye level.Â A celebration, and happy ending, if the story closed there.
I donâ€™t want to spoil a bit of the story of Babette. Go and read it now, then come back. A part that stands out to me is at the table full of Puritans, this housekeeper makes a meal that transports them, and they finally feel something. The meal so moves the thwarted love of one of the sisters, who feared too much to admit his love in his youth, to give a speech that made me reconsider my notions of fear. Babette, the housekeeper and former Parisian chef, does it because it is art. It is her art and it gives her a fulfillment that only an artist can understand. At this moment for me, wrestling with a touch of block, a ton of personal change, and a slew of rejection, this piece of advice made me feel cheered. As one sister observes after the party, â€śthe stars feel nearer.â€ť That is what art does for us.
No chef, but a writer, and I left my story unresolved. There were other moments of course in my lifetime of meals. Â A Chinese buffet when everything was going wrong, though just the mention of Chinese buffet explains it. Pastries from a bakery and a walk in the park before my third child was born, one of the happiest days of my life. Pastries and cup of coffee after our divorce at the Courthouse, from the same place. Â These are the strange details of life.
Life tied to food and art, and to choices. In the food-inspired, divine speech, a character says, â€śWe tremble before making our choice in life, and after having it tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it with gratitude. . .See! that which we have chosen is givenÂ us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time granted us.â€ť
As we slough the outgrown skin of what came before, and we prepare for the unknown ahead, learn to be far less afraid.Â We all plod on, older and wiser for every meal we have eaten. The old regrets fade. I have no idea of the details of the next meal, and if I am a diner or if I am the cook. I donâ€™t know the whole story of my life, or even the direction of my work. Thereâ€™s time. Â I keep hitting the keys despite the block, and I know the words will come back eventually. My only hope is to continually sit at this table and understand this is a fine feast and we should be grateful.