There’s an evocative scene in the French film Amélie, where two wine glasses levitate slightly above a restaurant table. They are being blown gently up above the table’s surface by the billowing tablecloth, which has caught a slight breeze coming across the balcony. Of course, for such a quirky thing to happen, the wind would have to be perfectly pitched under the cloth. Too hard and it would blow the fragile glasses over. Too soft and they would hold the cloth firmly in place.
Amélie is full of such wondrously unlikely images.
But what delighted by wife and me even more was the fact that we had eaten one of the best meals of life at that very table on that very balcony overlooking Paris.
Patachou has since closed. But back then it was perched on the top of a steep embankment in Montmartre, and its balcony looks right out over the City of Lights below. We ate the works that night – foie gras, duck, cheese, wine, crème brulee. It was sensational. And just as we sipped the last dregs of our cheap table wine, the most ferocious thunderstorm swept in over the city and dumped bucketloads of rain over Montmartre. Our waiter ushered us into the safety of the main restaurant and we all laughed out loud at the strength of rain — the falling drops as big as babies’ fists — hammering on the picture windows.
Later, as the storm eased, we made a dash for it through the drenched cobblestone streets, shimmering in the streetlights. From Montmartre we took the Metro to the Pont Alexandre across the Seine. Just because it’s what you do in Paris.
We’ll never forget it. We felt alive, even blissful, our bodies charged with excitement.
I still thank God for that wonderful evening. It felt like a sacred experience.
After all, why can’t a superb meal on a glistening, rain-soaked balcony be considered a religious experience? It just takes the eyes to see God’s grace in the everyday things of life. Instead of thinking of ordinary activities such as eating as mundane and profane, why not consider how we might see them as opportunities to experience God’s grace?
This might sound like a celebration of gluttony, but I’m not advocating greediness at all. I’m just asking us to see God’s goodness to us in the wonderfully delicious moments of our lives.
Jesus had a lot to say about feasting, food laws, and dinner table etiquette. Paul less so. But when Paul does address the topic of eating, it’s about the consumption of food that had previously been offered as sacrifices to idols. This isn’t a big issue for us, but like all laws and conventions around food it was a touchy subject at the time. In the end, Paul argues that it doesn’t really matter what we eat as long as we do so with an attitude of devotion to God and a clear conscience. He also has some useful things to say about how to handle differences of opinion on this matter. His overarching frame on the subject is that grace gives us freedom. We no longer need to be worried that God will reject us if we eat pork or consume alcohol. God’s grace in Christ frees us from neurotic fears about putting a foot out of line.
As Paul says, “Eat anything sold in the market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’.” (1Cor 10:25-26)
He goes on to caution us about not intentionally or flagrantly causing offence or embarrassment to our guests or our hosts, but essentially we get a green light at the buffet.
But I don’t believe Paul intended us to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Sure, we are no longer under the restrictions imposed by Jewish dietary laws, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see our mealtimes as holy moments. That’s what the ancient food laws did — they made your food intake into a religious decision. For the observant Jew, that elevates every meal to a sacred act.
I believe we ought to eat like Paul ate, by being free to eat anything, but also by choosing to make the ordinary holy. When he was offered a pork chop by a Gentile host, I’m sure he would have eaten it our of respect and gratitude, knowing he lives under grace not fear. But, I speculate, insofar as he had control over his diet, he would have probably maintained a commitment to the rigors of his Jewish heritage. Not out of fear or habit, but in order to lift the mundane act of eating into the holy act of communion with God. When we restrict ourselves from certain foods, even for a time, we increase our enjoyment of them.
Today, we eat whatever we want, whenever we want it. And thanks to a raft of food delivery apps, we can get it right now! There are no restrictions on us. That sounds like freedom, but in fact all it does is reduce our enjoyment of a truly well-prepared meal.
I believe that freedom overrides fear every time. But one of the ways we can increase the deliciousness of our freedom is to impose temporary restrictions on it. Imagine if I ate a magnificent French meal on the balcony at Patachou every night. It wouldn’t seem so special, would it?
This idea can be found at the heart of the film, Babette’s Feast, the story of a Parisian woman who, escaping political tyranny in France, finds herself in exile in a small, austere Lutheran village in Denmark. There she ingratiates herself into the puritanical community, her only indulgence being the lottery ticket sent to her every year by an old friend. Then, after fourteen years of exile, she wins the 10,000 francs prize. But rather than escaping the austerity, she decides to blow all her money on one truly splendid French banquet for her friends.
Babette’s dinner party is a culinary triumph. Its preparation is depicted as an almost religious service by Babette, even if only one of her guests recognizes it as the masterpiece it truly is. After fourteen years of self-denial, Babette invites her community to share in a celebration of sacrifice, festivity and conviviality.
Babette’s Feast is a powerful reminder that the act of savouring must entail a degree of gratitude, and gratitude only comes when one knows how special the gift is.
Some years after our dinner in Paris, my wife and I visited Siem Reap in central Cambodia and toured the awesome ruins of Angkor Wat. Our hosts had told us if we wanted an authentic Khmer-French meal not to eat in the fancy restaurants in the 5-star air-conditioned hotels in town. Instead, they directed us to Chez Sophea, an unprepossessing shack under the banyan trees near the entrance to the ruins. The night we arrived, we were their only diners.
The owner, Matthieu, a gregarious Frenchman, suggested we sit outside under the trees where he had strung some fairy lights in the branches. He plonked a bottle of beaujolais on the table and proceeded to tell us what we should order even before we looked at the menu. We decided not to argue. He seemed like a force to be reckoned with.
We ate the most wonderful Cambodia-influenced French meal that night, as the frogs croaked loudly from the temple moat and the quincunx of towers slowly disappeared in the encroaching darkness.
And when Matthieu joined us at our table and we got into a good-natured argument about feminism over another bottle of beaujolais, my wife and I glanced across the table at each other and realized we were having another one of those moments.
Grace is delicious.