Alex Halberstadt’s “The Temple Cuisine of Kyoto”

Both Alex Halberstadt’s “The Temple Cuisine of Kyoto” and Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast” introduce readers
to the intersection of spiritual practice and food. Halberstadt explores shojin, the highly disciplined Buddhist
approach to cooking—in both its strict sense and in its adapted, twenty-first-century secular form. As
Halberstadt notes, for at least some Buddhists “cooking is a form of spiritual practice that produces
nourishment to prepare the body for hard work or meditation. . . . Its goals are nothing less than permanent
enlightenment, nirvana, the fundamental transformation of the human mind and society.” Dinesen, on the other
hand, takes us back to the nineteenth century. With gentle humor and a sharp eye for human foibles and
anxieties, she tells the story of a small group of devout Scandinavian Christians who sit down to a once-in-alifetime traditional French feast. What are some of the similarities and dissimilarities between Buddhist and
Protestant attitudes towards eating as they are depicted in Halberstadt’s and Dinesen’s texts? What is
significant or interesting about these similarities and differences? We might ask this another way: How do faith
and/or spirituality influence attitudes towards eating in “Babette’s Feast” and “The Temple Cuisine of Kyoto”?
In Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast,” there is a lot of anxiety about food and drink—specifically foods that are
deemed sinful. For example, when Babette starts working for the sisters, the sisters “explained to her that they
were poor and that to them luxurious fare was sinful. Their own food must be as plain as possible” (114). What
makes a food luxurious and therefore sinful in the world Dinesen depicts? What makes one food sinful and
another food okay—and why? Why are the guests to Babbette’s titular feast so reluctant to enjoy food?
Isak Dinesen’s story “Babette’s Feast” implicitly asks several interesting questions about the connection
between pleasure and sin or pleasure and virtue. Some of this, no doubt, is based on church teachings and the
Bible. However, the specific fears are never clearly articulated. All we really know is that people who gather in
the dining room of Martine and Phillipa—except one—seem to be very suspicious of food that tastes good or
afraid to enjoy food too much. However, as the meal progresses, the group realizes that it is only “when man
has not only altogether forgotten but has firmly renounced all ideas of food and drink that he eats and drinks in
the right spirit” (129). What does this mean? How might this one sentence be the key that unlocks the whole
story, so to speak?
Isak Dinesen’s story “Babette’s Feast” explores the power of sharing a meal, of people coming together to
break bread. Dinesen also seems to be curious about how people interpret the food on their plates. The way I
see it, Dinesen is asking questions–implicitly, of course: What’s virtuous or sinful food? Is pleasure the same
thing as extravagance or indulgence? Is good food the same thing as luxurious food? This leads to my own
question. Why does Babette, a French refugee who has all but been asked to deny her talent and skill as a
cook, spend all of her lottery winnings on a dinner that none of the guests (save one) wants to appreciate—and
one that we come to find out the guests don’t clearly remember? (132)
Early in “That Lean and Hungry Look,” Suzanne Britt warns the reader about the various types of thin people.
Can you tell what she means by “your ‘together’ thin person, your mechanical thin person, your tsk-tsk thin
person, your efficiency-expert thin person”? What is the purpose of this list? What does she mean by “All of
them are dangerous”? 
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In “That Lean and Hungry Look” Suzanne Britt dramatizes an uncomfortable scene between a thin person and
a fat person. The first sentence of the paragraph sets the stage: “Thin people believe in logic” (161). The
“scene” depicts body weight as a contest between logic and other ways of understanding the world. What’s the
purpose of this scene?

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