when words failed, ratatouille didn’t

The first time I heard the word, “ratatouille,” I was 14 years old and sitting on a 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 the salty crunchiness of the popcorn and sweet chewiness of the candy.

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.

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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.

After finishing, I secured the lid back in place, wiped off any jam that had dripped to its side, and returned it to the cupboard. 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 française!

Never mind, I thought.

Unpacking the grocery bags, Madame brushed my baguette crumbs onto the floor, ran the vegetables under cold water, and placed them on the table.

As she rambled on circuitously 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.

“Ratatouille est très facile,” she told me. But then again, she thought everything was easy. Homemade jam, citrus tart, crêpes, 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. Scribbling this 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. Then, tomatoes. To finish, we added garlic, salt, pepper, and beaucoup des herbes — thyme, parsley, rosemary.

Et, c’est tout!” she said. All we had to do now was cook it on low heat for a few hours undisturbed – 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 cigarettes and who evidently had no interest in introducing themselves. 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. 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 demure host mother wiping her hands on the apron tied securely around her waist.

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, 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. Very little chewing was required because it melted in my mouth — and if I didn’t know any better, I would have said it was magic. Or alchemy. Or some combination of the two.

Now that I’m home in New York, I still find myself marveling at the fact that one eggplant, four zucchini, three large tomatoes, and a handful of herbs can become something as humble and exquisite as ratatouille. That it can taste like the dreary Parisian rain which I hated but pretended not to. Or the faint smell of cigarette smoke mixing with antique paperbacks along the banks of the Seine. Like the muffled vibrations of the underground increasing to a thundering rumble as the metro rounds the corner, or the delightfully cheap wine and weight gain I was just not sorry about. That it can taste 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. That it can taste like you something you have to feel.

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