The first time I heard the word, “ratatouille,” I was 14 years old and sitting on the cushioned movie theater seat, snug between my mom and my sister, watching the rat Remy come to life as an ambitious Parisian chef. I chose gummy bears and my sister, popcorn, and we sat next to each other to pass the snacks back and forth, enjoying both the salty crunchiness of the popcorn and the sweet chewiness of the candy. It was the perfect respite from the heat on the scorching July afternoon.
Other than the hour or so of Pixar-animated entertainment, the movie didn’t make much of an impression on my young-teen mind. In fact, I barely thought about the story or the food again until six years had passed and I was sitting on a wobbly white plastic stool in a tiny kitchen in Paris.
It was a rainy and unusually chilly Tuesday morning about a month into my semester abroad and, because I didn’t have class until that afternoon, I took my time examining the sticky sweetness of the jam penetrate the pores of the bread while simultaneously willing it to last longer than it normally did.
After finishing, I secured the lid securely back in place, wiped off any jam that had dripped to its side, and returned it to the cupboard, not wanting to leave a trace that I had been in the kitchen and not cleaned up my mess. With the remainder of the baguette resting effortlessly on the edge of the table, I sat for a while longer, listening to the pelting raindrops on the roof and moving the crumbs that had accumulated on the plastic tabletop with my finger as if they were grains of sand on a beach towel. Embracing my inner artiste, I was invested in the task of arranging the crumbs into the shape of the letter J for Jacqueline, whispering my name over and over again in a French accent so it sounded infinitely more sophisticated and Parisian. Startled by the sound the front door opening, I sat up as Madame Guilmard swiftly entered the kitchen with grocery bags in hand, telling me that we were going to make ratatouille together for dinner that night.
“Oh, comme le film Americain, n’est-ce-pas?” I asked my host mother, wondering if she had ever seen the film herself.
Madame responded with a puzzled look, thinking I had mis-understood what she just said and explained that ratatouille isn’t a film, but a classic dish of cuisine francaise!
Never mind, I thought.
Unpacking the grocery bags, Madame brushed my baguette crumbs onto the floor. As my J became a mangled sprinkle of carbohydrates falling to the ground like snowflakes, Madame placed the vegetables on the table: one eggplant, four zucchini, and three large tomatoes. Collecting them in one handful, I made sure not to drop any on the floor during their short commute from the table to the sink. I began to run them under cold water while focusing on what Madame was saying, translating it into English, thinking about what to say in return, and coming up with a way to say it with my rudimentary French vocabulary.
After washing the vegetables, we began to chop them. I watched as my host mother’s aged hand grasped the knife, beating to the rhythm of her kitchen as it sliced through the eggplant and landed on the cutting board. Her uniform slices of eggplant were leaning against each other before I could determine where to make my first cut into the tomato.
I took my time chopping for fear of making a careless error and slicing the tomato into pieces that were too large or too small. As Madame rambled on about the state of the French education system, taking out her frustrations through the savage mutilation of the vegetables, I glanced over to see what she was doing, trying my best to replicate her form.
After I had chopped my two tomatoes, and Madame had perfectly sliced one tomato, one eggplant and four zucchini, she suggested I take out my little red notebook, which I frequently brought to the kitchen to take notes while we cooked together.
“Ratatouille est très facile,” she told me. But then again, she thought everything was easy. Homemade jam, citrus tart, crepes, vegetable soup – you name it, and it was “très facile.”
The first step, she told me, is to heat oil and add the eggplant slices. As I wrote this first step down, I heard a fierce sizzle, crackling and spitting as the eggplant fought against the olive oil, ultimately succumbing and turning a transparent hue.
Next, instructed Madame, add the zucchini. The last vegetable is the tomato. To finish, we added garlic, salt, pepper, and beaucoup des herbes such as thyme, parsely, and rosemary.
“Et, c’est tout!” she said. All we had to do now was cook it on low heat for a few hours – the longer the better.
Sitting in the classroom that afternoon, I felt like my jeans had molded to my legs as they soaked in the raindrops that had dodged my umbrella during the commute. I was flanked on either side by Parisian students whose clothes were caked with the smell of the cigarettes they’d smoked before class and who had no interest in introducing themselves to that random American student in class. Trying my best to take notes on Louis XIV, I nonchalantly attempted to position my forearms in the hopes of blocking my notebook riddled with a horribly incorrect French/English combination from the view of my neighbors. It was halfway through the semester, but I didn’t think I would ever become immune to the worry that the professor would call on me to answer a question while I was still working on translating what he had said five minutes ago. Feeling a thin layer of sweat trickle down the skin under my scarf, I shifted in my unstable plastic chair, hoping one of the legs wouldn’t give out from under me. It’s just three hours, I kept telling myself. Three hours.
All I could imagine was the smell I was missing of the herbs and the garlic and the vegetables making its way out of the pot and through the hallways of the apartment, up to my bedroom at the top of the stairs. The crackling sound of the eggplant making contact with the olive oil replayed in my mind as I pictured my host mother wiping her hands on the apron tied securely around her waist. Without an ounce of makeup on her face, Madame wore the same pencil skirt, tights, sweater, and shoes every day in different colors. Tying up her graying hair in a chignon, Madame would often tell me that she feels the most alive or la plus vivante when cooking for her family.
Maybe it was my broken French combined with charade-like movements to get the point across; maybe it was the fact that, despite my utter incompetence, I sat with her every night after dinner to do crossword puzzles, or maybe it was because, when I had no idea what she was saying, I would just smile. Whatever it was, at some point, we understood each other perfectly. I had secured the coveted position of sous-chef.
Three hours, a walk through the unrelenting rain, and a claustrophobic metro ride later, and I was home, running up the spiral staircase, eagerly scrambling through my bag for my keys.
“Vous avez faim?” Madame asked me before I even took off my raincoat.
“Oui,” I told her. I couldn’t think of how to say I was starving in French so I just kept repeating the word to get the point across. “Oui, oui, oui.” Laughing to herself, she wiped her hands on her apron and beckoned me into the dining room where Monsieur Guilmard was already seated.
And there it was, front and center, stealing the show.
Over time, the vegetables had softened to the perfect consistency, becoming one dish while still maintaining their individual flavors. I soon learned that little chewing was required while eating ratatouille because it melted in my mouth. It was the ultimate vegetable stew I had never tasted, and if I didn’t know any better, I would have said the recipe called for several exotic ingredients whose names I couldn’t pronounce. It was the most ordinarily extraordinary thing I had ever tasted.
We ate ratatouille several more times that semester. And each time, it was like I was tasting it for the first time. I had plans to make it for my family when I returned home, to introduce them to this Provencal vegetable dish. But I’ve been home for over a year now and, however much I crave it, I haven’t tried to make it once. Even if I perfectly follow my meticulously recorded notes and use exactly one eggplant, four zucchini, and three large tomatoes, I know it won’t taste like I remember.
The ratatouille I fell in love with tastes like the dreary Parisian rain which I hated but pretended not to. It tastes like the faint smell of cigarette smoke mixing with antique paperbacks along the banks of the Seine. It tastes like the muffled vibrations of the underground increasing to a thundering rumble as the metro rounds the corner. It tastes like delightfully cheap wine and weight gain I was just not sorry about. It tastes like Paris, like a host family that became my second family, and like some ordinarily extraordinary things that cannot be translated across any language barrier. It tastes like something you have to feel.