In the opening minutes of the 2007 Pixar film, Ratatouille, the rat, Remy, has stolen a chanterelle mushroom and a small morsel of tomme de chèvre. He scurries to find a few herbs herbs, and gets the idea to roast the mushroom over a chimney. He cobbles together a makeshift rotisserie using the tines of a roof antenna. Unfortunately the lightning of an approaching thunderstorm zaps him from the roof in a cloud of smoke and singed fur. This could be the end of Remy, but he survives, and the intense jolt from the lightning has now fused the alpine goat cheese into the gills of the mushroom cap. It’s a sort of monkey at a typewriter moment, but instead of writing Hamlet, this country rat has unexpectedly invented molecular gastronomy. When he dusts himself off and takes a bite, his mind sparks and he begins describing the flavors as sounds. “You know it’s got this BABOOM!,” he says excitedly, “a ZZAPP kinda taste.” It’s a brilliant moment because he creates a kind of art so good he can only use the vocabulary of another art form to describe it.
That’s the beauty of good art: the only way to understand it is with more art.
With that in mind, let me say that good ratatouille is like a Monet. You ever look at San Maggiore at Dusk or Impression, Sunrise? If you haven’t, do, and when you do, log away that feeling you get in your heart. If you have any inclination toward the artistic, the feeling is profound. If you don’t, don’t sweat it, the art is good enough to sneak inside your heart and lie in wait. Then, after you’ve looked at the paintings, it doesn’t really matter when, taste some really well made ratatouille and something mysterious will happen. As the distinct flavors of ripe roasted tomatoes, sweet squash just on the verge of melting, firm, meaty eggplant, licorice-scented basil, and red pepper glide across your palate, that familiar feeling the painting patiently held in your heart will release. Like the Monet, what at first seems like a blur of colors, will reveal instead a series of carefully placed small gestures, each one a self-contained burst of feeling. Soon, you won’t be able to shake the thought that somehow, impossibly, you’re almost eating art.
Look, I know it sounds crazy, and not a little pretentious, but that’s how good art works. It’s humility always teetering on the verge of high-mindedness. Look at Monet, or Renoir, or Van Gogh. For all of their grand proclamations about art, when it comes down to actually taking in their work, it’s their humility that gets you. Whether it’s a table of sweaty people eating on the banks of the Seine, delicate lily pads on a murky pond, or a cypress tree interrupting the night sky, the grand and humble converge to deliver a purity of expression (or impression) that pierces deep.
Ratatouille does similar sneaky work on the mind. It’s a humble dish. A chopped vegetable stew. But that humility hides intoxicating powers. It can unlock forgotten memories. Perhaps it will summon shoeless Julys of screen porch supper as cicadas start to take over the night. Perhaps it will call up that time the mangy Labrador appeared in the backyard with a mouthful of prize tomatoes looking guilty, sullen, and sated. Perhaps you never had one of those summers. I never even had a Labrador. But eating ratatouille makes me think I did. It’s powerful that way. It can make you nostalgic for a time you never actually experienced. One bite and you’ll swear you drank Bandol with Monet in his studio one late summer afternoon. And that’s okay. Brag to your friends you did. If they’re eating ratatouille with you, they’ll probably believe you, and swear they were there too.
• 2 small yellow zucchini
• 2 small green zucchini
• 4 roma tomatoes, peeled
• 2 small eggplant
• 2 red peppers
• 4 cloves of garlic
• 1 medium onion
• 1 small handful of basil leaves. (maybe 10 or 12 leaves)
• salt and pepper to taste
• olive oil
• Parchment paper