Babette's Feast: A Classic Culinary and Coffee Inspiration

If you’ve ever visited our Mission Street Roastery you can’t help but notice a beautiful installation created by lettering artist and designer Dana Tanamachi. This painting illustrates the Isak Dinesen story Babettes Feast, also an Academy Award winning film directed by Gabriel Axel.  This story is perfect for the holidays - set in a Danish winter with an elaborate feast shared among family and friends.  

Dana and I share a love for this story and agreed it be the perfect inspiration for the opening of our first roastery in 2017.  For the past few years I have hosted our team around the Saint Frank birthday to watch the film and share an inspired meal together featuring dishes and wines poured from the film’s namesake feast.  We begin to watch the film part way through our meal stopping to pour special wines and serve dessert while reflecting on its rich themes about the potential of hospitality, art, and service to be vehicles for transformation and redemption. 


The Story 

In short, Babette's Feast tells the story of an aging rural religious community in Denmark that once received a desperate French refugee named Babette who becomes a beguiling and beneficial member to the community.  After twelve years she wins the lottery and asks that she be able to serve a French meal for the ascetic and rather drab community. None of which are prepared to appreciate what Babette prepares and yet cannot help but be impacted and transformed despite their best efforts of resistance. 

As the marvelous ingredients begin to arrive the religious sisters who took in Babette from the beginning begin to fear the direction this dinner will go.  In addition to imported crates of produce, chirping quails, and a live turtle, they spy a case of what appears to be wine and object to Babette shocked at seeing what they believe to be wine in their home.  Babette’s response is priceless.

“Wine, Madame! No, Madame. It is a Clos Vougeot 1846!”

We often say that coffee is never “just coffee.”  While our culture developed a commoditized and homogenized attitude toward coffee over the twentieth century, the true identity behind specialty coffee is not latte art and coffee shops but the identification of coffees with terroir - the taste of a specific place. 

While it is true that the bottles Babette held were indeed wine, the truth is that they were so much more than just wine - it was in fact it was the most storied and noble wine in the world!  Clos Vougeot is a famous walled vineyard identified and developed by Cistercian monks in 1,100 A.D. for its uniqueness and exceptional quality.  This attention to detail and particularity was the beginning of the concept of terroir in Burgundy where there are now over 1,200 recognized “climats” of terroir of which Clos Vougeot is considered the first.  Our approach to coffee at Saint Frank follows in these ancient footsteps. 

 When purchasing and enjoying our coffees you can be sure that we have visited every site where that coffee was grown diving deeper into understanding why it tastes the way it does.  We commit to the producers investing in their potential as growers and the potential of the land to produce remarkable and individual coffees. We have the privilege to learn and experience these coffees year over year deepening our understanding and history as we progress.  Being so involved we could never again treat our coffees as just coffee, experiencing and knowing all of the skill and work that went into each harvest, all of the conditions that create such exceptional and unique flavors.  No Madame, this is not coffee.

“She had appeared to be a beggar; she turned out to be a conqueror.”

The narrator introduces Babette this from the beginning of the story and of course guides us to reveal just what she means.  At this point our passion for the stories and communities behind our coffees should be clear but this is a guiding theme that impacts our approach to service as well.  Things are never merely as they seem, Babette turns out to be much more than a beggar and a refugee. . . I’ll try my best not to spoil the ending for those of you unfamiliar!  Everyone has a story just like the Clos Vougeot 1846 has a story and each of our coffees has a story whether the Don Guayo from Eduardo Gomez in Anitigua, Guatemala or the Las Nieves from Milton Castellon in Santa Barbara, Honduras.  Their stories add meaning and humanity to these coffees that goes far deeper than flavor alone. 

But each one of us at Saint Frank has a story as well, just as each one of our guests.  While we unapologetically praise our coffees are more than “just coffee” it is precisely our commitment to the humanity of the coffee supply stream and experience that prevents us from devolving into pretension and arrogance.   Coffee should create connection and enjoyment not dismiss and divide. Everyone has a story, everyone matters.

The first part of Babette’s Feast tells the backstory of the two sisters who welcome Babette upon her arrival.  Each story was amusing and meaningful on its own but only later as the story develops do we begin to draw on the powerful connections and meaning that fills the final feast and ending.  None of us can know in a moment the connections and stories of those we encounter but we can choose to believe that we can’t predict how connections and meaning might develop. Our core assumptions and beliefs at Saint Frank are that everything matters and everything is connected.  This faith allows us the freedom to work and serve with the kind of courtesy and generosity that might otherwise appear impossible or fruitless. 

At the dinner table the group of friends gather to eat Babette’s magnificent feast filled with fear and suspicion, determined to religiously and dutifully block their engagement with the fearful meal and to finish the memorial meal of their beloved pastor in the silent and stoic manner in which they had been brought up.  But the sheer delight of the flavors and lavish and generous service of Babette’s feast slowly loosens their tongues and their minds. Treasured memories are shared, old conflicts and reconciled and cold hearts are melted. Old friends welcome one another into their lives as if for the first time with the seasoning and development of all their history much like the feast - which of course ended with freshly roasted coffee!

“The vain illusions of this earth dissolved before their eyes like smoke, and they had seen the universe as it really is.”

The holiday season can be a challenging time as many of us are confronted with tension, conflict, and oftentimes loneliness.  As real as those challenges are they do not define who we are and do not have to lead us unto vain illusions. The universe, as it really is, is full of meaning and connection, even full of hope.  Sometimes it takes a special meal or moment with a delicious cup of coffee to dissolve our fears and open us to the world we are in where everything matters and everything is connected. 

These moments are all around us but can be especially powerful around a holiday dinner table or over coffee the next morning.  We'll be there to share that coffee and even inspire you to take than hope and possibility wherever you go.