My new apartment is small. People tell me it’s too small and I shrug them off, but when I cook here, I realize how important kitchen space is to me. I stack three plastic bins of books (lacking the shelf space for all my fiction) as a makeshift island. I leave dishes next to my modem to dry on a mat.
I moved to Spokane for several reasons: A fresh start, to teach part-time, to live in a state with (relatively) better healthcare, and to get professional training as a baker. I can write, read, and sleep well enough just about anywhere, but I didn’t realize how precious kitchen space can be.
When I get home with a bag of squash, tomatoes, and onions from my grandparents’ garden after visiting them in Montana, I squeeze myself between my door as it barges against a lamp and my fridge. Here, I feel like I’m in a scene from the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille, in which Linguini brings Remy to his own similarly tiny Parisian apartment, where Remy takes in the view of the Eiffel Tower from the studio window. My new place doesn’t have an equivalent view, though, no apparent silver lining. I can only make do with what I bring to this place.
As I assemble my ingredients and begin heating oil in a small cast iron skillet for a lone vegetarian dinner, I think about the bright, colorful ratatouille that Remy makes in the film. The premise is much like an old fable: Remy the rat emerges from the sewers, befriends a garbage boy, and reinvigorates a restaurant and the soul of a pretentious critic, Anton Ego, with his cooking.
In the film, the character Colette calls ratatouille “a peasant dish” and Ego balks at it when presented with a plate of it before taking a bite. It’s telling that his first bite transports him to memories of his childhood eating a heaping bowl of stewed vegetables in the countryside, reminding him of what we can assume are the working-class roots he pushes away now as an arbiter of expense and prestige.
The twist is predicated on the dish’s obscurity. Mollie Katzen describes ratatouille as a “Mediterranean vegetable stew” in the original Moosewood Cookbook, to be served “on a bed of rice, or in a bowl” (Katzen 119). Rebecca Seal notes that in the nineteenth century, ratatouille was “a staple for the armed forces and prisoners.” Like other peasant dishes of nineteenth century Europe, it was probably similar to the gruel that Ebeneezer Scrooge sulkily eats in his miserable apartment, alone with his ghosts. Laure Murat makes much of the dish’s obscurity, observing that the Tresor de la langue francaise, a voluminous French dictionary, locates the origins of ratatouille in “a crossing between ‘tatouiller’ which means ‘to stir, to handle a lot; to spill in the mud’ and ‘ratouiller,’ ‘to make murky, to shake, to stir; to make dirty'” (Murat 144).
The dish is broad, flexible, open to interpretation. In fact, what Remy makes in the film is actually based on a culinary variation of ratatouille called confit biyaldi, which the pioneering health-conscious chef Michel Guérard invented in the 1970s during the Nouvelle cuisine movement, which revolutionized what is now an accepted standard in Western cuisine (and partly stolen from Japanese traditions) for culinary presentation, with an emphasis on a smaller quantity of food neatly organized at the center of the plate. What Ego eats—a small stack of carefully prepared vegetables and sauce—is the culmination of cultural changes in Europe that some scholars trace to the May 1968 protests that swept across France. After May ’68, Nouvelle cuisine began as “a bid to enhance the professional control of restaurants by chefs” by transforming cooks into “inventors rather than mere technicians” (Rao et al. 805).
Murat’s interpretation is that the murkiness of the dish is one of several ways that Remy is marked as an outsider generally, as queer specifically. For Murat, the movie “suggests that the culinary work of art implies the transformation of what the norm treats as discarded material. . . it is no coincidence that it is cooked by the ‘rejects’ of society” (Murat 144). The title of the movie could refer to the cast of characters themselves, who come together to form a better community through collaboration, to be inventors rather than rehashing the restaurant’s same old recipes.
This has its limits. The film is not kind to its one female protagonist, Colette, whose hard work in the industry Remy supplants at the last minute. Likewise, Linguini and Remy lose whatever intimate friendship they have when Linguini chooses to be with Colette, who is then expected to let her new lover’s former mentor (or friend or top or something) take the role of innovator, subjugating her again to the role of a technician. The film really only suggests radical shifts against hierarchy without fully arriving at them. It is Disney, after all.
Chefs like Guérard and Thomas Keller (of the French Laundry) popularized ratatouille for their generation, but for my generation, the 2007 film drew attention to the dish in the playful way it deserves. Ratatouille can be made from the detritus of castaway ingredients. Like other stews, it’s useful for getting rid of ingredients before they go bad. It’s a way of making the best of what’s available, easily adapted to new and changing circumstances. It’s a good dish to master in my tiny, viewless apartment. It’s a dish that, literally, anyone can cook, and ultimately, it’s a good dish for the Anthropocene, adaptable to whatever manages to grow in the garden after abnormal weather patterns, drought, smoke, and other effects of climate change. This is true of my grandparents’ garden, which has taken hit after climatic hit this year, and yet they still have plenty of squash.
My version of this dish uses ingredients available at most farmers markets in the Northwest, or from a variety of backyards if you have friends who are homeowners.
- Assemble vegetables. Eggplant is traditional but I had yellow squash, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and zucchini.
- Add olive oil to a cast iron skillet (the size depends on who you’re cooking for). Chop the onion and mince garlic and add to the oil on medium heat with a pinch of salt and pepper, to brown.
- Add sliced red tomatoes and halved cherry tomatoes. Add basil, oregano, and a dash of red wine vinegar or a squeeze of fresh lemon.
- Stir occasionally for fifteen minutes. Slice veggies thinly, using a mandoline if available.
- Remove the skillet from the heat when the sauce is stewed down a bit. Arrange veggies in a stack on top of the tomato sauce, fitting in as many as possible. You can be fancy and make it a confit byaldi by packing in the slices vertically, or go for a rustic look with something more pile-shaped. You can make it vegan or top with grated cheese, before or after baking. You can garnish with parsley, or basil, or more cherry tomatoes. This recipe is open-minded. It’s up for whatever.
- Cover the pan with foil. Bake in the oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes (use more time for a bigger pan).
- Serve with bread, or with wine, or on a bed of rice, or whatever you have available.
- If dining alone, watch a movie or listen to the radio while eating. If ghosts or rats arrive, listen carefully to what they have to say.
Katzen, Mollie. Moosewood Cookbook. Ten Speed Press, 1977.
Murat, Laure. “What’s Queer About Remy, Ratatouille, and French Cuisine?” What’s Queer About Europe? Productive Encounters and Re-Enchanting Paradigms, edited by Mireille Rosello & Sudeep Dasgupta, Fordham University Press, 2014, 136-147.
Rao, Hayagreeva, Philippe Monin & Rodolphe Durand. “Institutional Change in Toque Ville: Nouvelle Cuisine as an Identity Movement in French Gastronomy.” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 108 No. 4 (2003), 795-843.
Seal, Rebecca. “Deconstructing Ratatouille. National Geographic, May 10, 2019.