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Cooking Movies: The Best Ever Part I
There are a vast number of movies out there in the world that have cooking as a predominant theme, so I am being a bit presumptuous when I claim that I know what the best in the world are. In all honesty, I have not watched every movie in the world that has cooking as theme, but I am confident that I am not steering you wrong with my choices. Today I am writing the first installment of this five part series, with a description of the movie and the cooking within. All of the movies I have chosen are rich not only with food, but with characters so compelling that one wishes to dine with them often.
Great cooking alone would not make a great cooking movie. It is when cooking is brought to the screen with such passionate force that one can taste the crispy skin of a roasted duck, smell the heady aroma of spices melding in a Biryani, and taste the steaming cup of chocolat as it is being poured into a mug, that one has the beginning of a great movie. It then takes incredible cinematography, a script that involves conversation just as heady as the cooking, and finally, the inclusion of an appetite for something beyond cooking. It is that final lusty ingredient that stirs the pot, sets the custard, and crystallizes the sugar on the crème caramel.
I start today with my very favorite cooking movie. I rented it on DVD a couple of years ago and proceeded to keep the rental for four days, watching it every evening during that time. I have watched it since then on several occasions, sharing it with friends who I knew would be as enchanted as I was.
Babette’s Feast is my number one pick. Filmed in 1987, it is set in (1885) Denmark in a remote fishing village accessible only by boat. Based upon a story written by Isak Dineson (who also wrote the book that the movie Out of Africa was based upon), the film begins with the story of two middle-aged sisters who have spent the majority of their life taking care of their aging widowed father, the pastor and founder of a strict Christian sect. Once young and beautiful, they attracted the attention of suitors who were carefully considered and finally discouraged out of loyalty to their father and his ideals. Ironically, this selfish man enjoyed the comfort of familial love and care every day, yet rejected the same opportunity for his daughters, not thinking about their future. After his death the daughters continued to lead a quiet austere life, helping the dwindling congregation and practicing self-abnegation. The austerity is no more evident than in the meals they prepare for themselves and for those in the community that they care for. With staples like boiled cod for every single meal, the food clearly only provides physical sustenance.
One day, a woman arrives with a letter of recommendation from one of the sister’s former suitors, explaining that she is a political refuge and alone in the world. She offers to work as a housekeeper and cook. The sisters, unable to ignore her plight, take her in and she spends the next fourteen years as their employee, friend and confidante. This woman is Babette. When Babette one day wins the lottery and with it enough money to live comfortably for the rest of her life, she requests the pleasure of cooking a feast for the sisters and their friends. It is the preparation and eating of this sumptuous feast that forms the greater part of this movie. Babette orders delicacies from France, never before tasted by the poor and austere villagers who comprise the sisters’ friends. It is the awakening of their dulled senses throughout the meal, coupled with the passionate feelings of warmth and friendship that are rekindled over their enjoyment of blinis Demidoff with caviar, turtle soup, quail in puff pastry with foi gras and truffle sauce (along with vast quantities of rare wine), that make this movie so very memorable and a veritable feast for the senses. The final scene, in which Babette tells the sisters that she has spent every last penny on this sumptuous meal, is a surprising and touching end.
The cuisine served in this movie is for the most part time-consuming, complex, and expensive. In between the heavier courses, though, the diners refreshed their palettes on fresh fruit, piquant cheeses, and champagne. The creator of the story, Isak Dinesen, herself lived on a diet of grapes, oysters and champagne when she was dying of syphilis in her old age. I find that these relatively simple concoctions, which can be purchased at any good deli, make for an appropriate and easy repast while you enjoy this movie.