A Table Is More than Utility

From issue 15’s “Table Talk” — 5 essays on food, eating, and the Christian life.

My husband and I recently dropped nearly $1,000 on a single meal. Just the two of us.

Having successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, it was time to celebrate. I had my eyes on Frasca, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, known for its meals inspired by the food and wine of Italy’s Friuli region. It would be a night to remember.

Having selected their top offering — the Friulano tasting menu with the wine pairings — we sat back, or leaned in rather, and prepared to be delighted. Our journey began with three amuse-bouche and a Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne (this alone could run $250 a bottle). One word: Wow.

Again and again, I had the same wonderful discovery: Never before have I experienced wine and food that elevate one another so magnificently. Each dish was crafted and prepared to perfection; each wine was spectacular in its own merit. But put them together in an expertly matched pairing — the words are unreachable for me.

One of the most memorable courses? The chocolate pasta. You read that correctly. Stuffed with a silky cheese, topped with truffle, hazelnuts, and soaked husk cherries, the chefs presented for us a new category of taste. They perfectly walked the line between sweet and savory. It wasn’t one with a bit of the other; it was something entirely new. Paired with a Chianti Classico, this dish blew our minds. Who knew rich, bitter chocolate and the driest wine known to humanity could pair so exquisitely?

If you’re asking, “How could you justify spending that much on one meal?” You’d be in good company, like those gobsmacked to see Mary Magdalene anoint Jesus’ feet with spikenard worth one year’s wages. One thousand dollars can do so many practical, useful, and good things.

Such critiques are fair, in their way. But that meal was worth every penny. Every. Penny. Because beauty is costly, too. And the cost is worth it.

When utility is our highest — or our only — value, lavish expense becomes offensive. It appears irresponsible, selfish, even reckless. But what if utility wasn’t our only value?

The Feast of a Lifetime

Our Frasca meal recalls two beloved stories. First, a familiar story, of the father whose prodigal son returns home after squandering his inheritance. After wasting the money in reckless living, he is convinced his best option is to return home and plead for the lowly position of a servant. Rather than make him a servant, the father throws a feast in his honor. His “lost” son had returned home; there was reason to rejoice! The father, out of sheer love and generosity, shows his own prodigality by lavishing extravagant grace on this undeserving son. “Logic” might have led the father to withhold; he had already given so much. Rather, his actions say the exact opposite. His value was not utility; it was love.

Second, Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen. Babette, forced to flee France, lands with two old maids in Jutland, Denmark. Grateful for a place of refuge, Babette humbly serves these ladies and their townspeople, including a pious sect.

Years later, Babette receives news of the unthinkable: She has won the lottery. Rather than return to France, however, Babette spends it all — 10 thousand francs — on a meal. One meal. She serves 11 of the townspeople, all of whom had never tasted a delicacy in their lives.

As the unwitting guests tuck in, their gazes soften and faces warm. They recount beloved memories. Even decades-long grudges are forgiven and snuffed-out romances rekindled. Despite having no idea the value of what is before them, they all partake of — and are transformed by — the grace nonetheless.

Babette’s secret? She had been a chef at a famed restaurant in Paris, the Café Anglais. There, dinner for 12 cost 10 thousand francs. Confessing this, the sisters are taken aback — all 10 thousand francs? On one dinner? On us?

As an artist, Babette longs to create and to bless, to make great art and place it before others, whether they can appreciate it or not.

Both Babette and the father of the prodigal son are not driven by utility. They don’t ask what is deserved or what their acts can “do.” Rather, they ask, “What can I give?”

Beauty Changes Us

As far as fine dining is concerned, a meal of the Frasca sort may be only a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But such experiences change us. Really, they slap us in the face with their excellence and creativity. We get a renewed sense for what is possible when humanity embraces its role, not only as stewards, but as co-creators with God. This world is full of potential, laced with latent beauty, like veins of gold through rock. That latent beauty requires only a loving eye and the will to craft it into something good, and more than that, something wonderful to share.

Beauty may be costly, but its lavishness may be its very grace, a necessary reminder that there is more to this life than utility.

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