Setting a Hospitable Table

-Lloyd den Boer

Setting a Hospitable Table

According to ten-year-old me, no one could cook like my favourite aunt. When Aunt Ella invited our family for dinner, the menu featured whatever my uncle had hunted recently — usually ducks, sometimes pheasants, and, one memorable time, a goose. Aunt Ella served birds with meat so juicy that even a finicky eater like me asked for seconds. Her potatoes, whipped until they were airy, had savoury gravy to top them. Pungent ice pickles and dark red beets, preserved a season earlier and plated side-by-side, added colour to the table and put a crinkle in our noses. I don’t remember the vegetables — after all vegetables are seldom memorable when you are ten — but I do remember the stuffing. According to me, no one made stuffing like Aunt Ella.

Truth be told, however, the tastes on Aunt Ella’s table were very like the tastes of special meals cooked at home. If Aunt Ella had a “secret sauce” that made her wonderful food extraordinary, it must have been the hospitality that she and Uncle Ed extended to their guests. From the moment when a warm welcome greeted us at the door, to the moment when a fond farewell followed us out a few hours later, Aunt Ella bubbled with merriment while Uncle Ed looked on with a genial smile. Conversation flowed eagerly. From time to time, my mom would join her sister in gales of laughter, buttressed by my dad’s booming voice. For a few magical hours my parents carried their worries more lightly, and we children luxuriated in the fun erupting around us. Aunt Ella and Uncle Ed knew how to use a dinner invitation to create a warm and joyful space for us, and once within it, our family seemed to become a brighter, better version of itself.

Wonderful meals appear in many stories. Sometimes — as in a Shakespearean comedy — they tie plot threads together, bringing the action to a satisfying close. Other times, as in “Babette’s Feast,” a short story by Isak Dinesen, meals transform characters. The climax of Dinesen’s story is a lavish dinner, worthy of Paris, but held in an improbable place — an isolated fishing village in northern Norway during the 1870s. The guests are a challenge. Members of a little flock of pious believers who had become “querulous and quarrelsome” in their old age, they arrive at the feast determined not to be taken in by sinful pleasures. Yet, as one course follows upon another, their barriers begin to dissolve. Softened by the experience, they begin to recall moments from the past when they had been less resentful of each other. When the dinner ends and the guests emerge into a world of new fallen snow, they have been restored to a semblance of the vital, loving fellowship they once had been.

However, for Dinesen, “Babette’s Feast” is primarily a tale about an artist who makes a great sacrifice for her art. Babette was once a cook in a famous restaurant patronized by the elite of Parisian society. When the story opens, she had been living in the Norwegian village as a refugee from revolutionary France for many years. When an unexpected financial windfall comes her way, Babette chooses to spend it all on one last great dinner, one last opportunity to practice her art. The villagers’ transformation is meant to show how a great artist’s self-expression has power to shape the world.

These days I like to read this story against its grain, interpreting Babette’s feast less as a celebration of artistic self-expression and more as a portrait of the power of hospitality. When mistrust, anger, and shouting are on the rise, we should respond with the generous and deliberate practice of hospitality. Even though hospitality’s open hand seems weak when surrounded by hostile fists, the open hand grows strong when we all extend it.

Lloyd Den Boer is a retired educator who lives with his wife in Edmonton. Appreciating the hospitality that good friends and neighbours extend to them, they do their best each day to make the hospitable circle larger.