Thursday, September 10, 2009

Table for One: Ratatouille and Henry David Thoreau

My grandmother knows ratatouille. When I came back from Paris, she describing to me how the air in the city around seven o'clock in the evening is "like cotton...silent", and taking me through, step by step, how to make ratatouille. Her hands would fly from vegetable to spice to pot to pot holder, only to pause in the air to describe the lights of the discotheque. I forgot the ratatouille instructions, I was transported to her Paris.

So with white eggplant and squash sitting in the fridge, I decided to venture ratatouille. Having forgotten my grandmother's instructions, I nabbed the recipe from

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons dried parsley
  • 1 eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • salt to taste
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 zucchini (or squash), sliced
  • 1 large onion, sliced into rings
  • 2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms
  • 1 green bell pepper, sliced
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Coat bottom and sides of a 1 1/2 quart casserole dish with 1 tablespoon olive oil.

2. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Saute garlic until lightly browned. Mix in parsley and eggplant. Saute until eggplant is soft, about 10 minutes. Season with salt to taste.

3. Spread eggplant mixture evenly across bottom of prepared casserole dish. Sprinkle with a few tablespoons of Parmesan cheese. Spread zucchini in an even layer over top. Lightly salt and sprinkle with a little more cheese. Continue layering in this fashion, with onion, mushrooms, bell pepper, and tomatoes, covering each layer with a sprinkling of salt and cheese.

4. Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes.

The best part of the recipe was the eggplant, cooked in garlic and left to swelter in spices and oil. This may be what my grandmother did, sautee the entire thing in spices and oil.

I decided to pair the ratatouille with Henry David Thoreau's A Year in Thoreaus's Journal: 1851. Thoreau's essayist tendencies, including his diatribe on the transcendent properties of walking in the aptly named, Walking, are more enjoyable that his novels. Again, his journals reflect him writing for the sake of writing, something I admire and enjoy.

As I take my first bites into the ratatouille, I am taken aback by the squash's sweetness. How appropriate that something so naturally bright and candy-colored tastes of mellow honey. The spices (I used oregano and basil) are blinded by the kick of garlic and the bleed of tomato.

Thoreau says,

How to make the getting of our life poetic! For if it is not poetic, it is not life but death we get.
And thus my meal is saved. The different ingredients are harmonies, the different textures, correspondent rhythms and for a moment my ratatouille is not a soup but a SONG. Or at least, this makes me feel better about not entirely achieving the full potential of ratatouille.

Thoreau is obsessed with the "wild." Often he waxes on about said "wild", making wishes and wants:

I wish my neighbors were wilder.

Wild as if we lived on the marrow of antelopes devoured raw.

Take away their names and you leave men a wild herd distinguished only by their individual qualities.
It is the earthiness, the potential for "wild", of the ratatouille that inspired me to reach for Thoreau. The vegetables came from our CSA box from Full Circle Farm, and still had the soil dusting them. I can imagine the farmers reaching for the vegetable, plucking it up or digging it out, hands calloused , the dirt gathering under fingernails. I wanted to connect to the earth with this meal, but ended up connected to the transparent, the illusive, the ephemeral: poetry. Perhaps ratatouille is some kind of muse potion, what inspired my grandmother to reach out her hands as if she were touching the lights of Paris. Or perhaps I should have written down her instructions.


briannelee said...

Yum! That looks really good!

catherine_sr. said...

This all sounds so wonderful! I wish my kitchen was suitable for cooking (it's really old and poorly equipped)... your post made me hungry!

Charlotte Drene said...

Oh it was a mistake to come onto your blog with an empty stomach!

The dress in your last post is fantastic! What an unusual colour! It's lovely :)

Lucie said...

I absolutely love this post! Ive just re-dsicovered cooking lately, and think this recipe was just the inspiration i need! your grandma sounds like such a sweetie!!

I would love to exchange blog links if your up for it?


Lucas Spivey said...

I really like this Bookie - Foodie idea. I think you should separate this out into a whole new blog dedicated solely to food-book combos.

Heather said...

That looks so delicious! Now I have to go find something to eat!

what_wit! said...

I liked the movie. The one about the rat, you know? He cooked and people were all like, "You can't cook cuz you're a rat or whatever!" and then he was like, "Quit bitchin and eat the food," and they were like, "Oh it's good."

I think it was a cartoon.