Une Recette de Ratatouille
3 peppers (red, orange, yellow)
5 Roma tomatoes
1 large red onion
1 can tomato juice
Olive oil (as needed)
6 cloves garlic
7 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Prepare your ingredients.
Slice peppers into wedges. Chop tomatoes and red onion. Cut zucchinis and eggplants into thick slices. Like a coin, thick as your index, that’s how Mamie first learned it. She’d first learned it from her maman, at a time when her index was still too small, and so she watched, as though in a trance, the rhythmic movements of Maman’s fingers. Mamie could do it now by feel, sixty-two years of muscle memory.
Mince the garlic. Maman kept her nails short, and had long beautiful fingers that moved swiftly when she minced the garlic. Mamie’s own fingers were stubby and bulged at the knuckles. This was something that time would rid her of, when her youth was magnetic, in her twenties, and throughout adulthood when her kids were young, but the thick knuckles would return in the later years of her life, from arthritis. Maman minced smoothly like the movements of the sea, stirring the air. When Mamie tried, her fingers were poking and jabbing.
Maman always removed her wedding ring while she was cooking, leaving it by the sink, so that she could wash away all the ingredients before she ate. Except for the garlic. The garlic stayed. It perfumed her fingertips, always. Maybe it remained beneath her nails, or maybe it permeated her skin, but Maman always cooked with garlic, and while flecks of chopped herbs and tomato seeds were washed down the drain, the garlic stayed. Mamie smelled it when Maman brushed the bangs out of her eyes, or tucked Mamie into bed, or on Toutou. Maman loved Toutou, the family Beauceron, and expressed this to Toutou by massaging his head. Toutou’s head also always smelled like garlic. Like those long beautiful fingers, the smell of garlic, for Mamie, became a sign of womanhood.
Ratatouille was Mamie’s favourite meal. When it was ready, the house would steam with hot vegetables, fogging up the windows with the breath of a good meal. Aromas of garlic and basil waking every room, weaving itself with the corner’s cool air, the coats, the blankets, carrying with it the promise of a warm stomach. Une odeur savoureuse steaming from the old ceramic casserole. And it was Mamie’s favourite, until her classmate had called it un repas de pauvres. A meal for the poor.
“Est-ce qu’on est pauvre, maman?” Mamie asked, that evening, cutting the zucchinis into coins.
[Are we poor, mom?]
Maman stopped, she kept her eyes fixed on the grooved cutting board. She set aside her knife and crouched down to meet Mamie’s gaze. Mamie told her about the repas de pauvres, and once she was done, Mamie swallowed and felt ashamed of what she’d said. Maman had listened, unflinching, and responded, “Est-ce que ça changerait le gôut, Jacqueline?” [Would it change the way it tastes, Jacqueline?], with the finality of wisdom. See, Mamie was still a little kid, and Maman had much more vécu than Mamie, she’d lived more. The vécu gave Maman a doubtlessness when she spoke, when she moved, when she decided things, her mind was made-up, even when she cooked.
It was true that the family had fallen on hard times. After that conversation, slowly, the ingredients started to disappear, until Mamie found herself cutting one of four ingredients, the zucchini, wishing she could turn the seeded green rounds into real coins. Mamie started to dislike ratatouille, noticing a bitterness that hadn’t been there before, but still ate it without complaints. The smell of ratatouille settled into her coat, ringing like a bell. Mamie imagined her classmates knowing the smell, she imagined they knew she wore the smell of the poor.
By the time Mamie had graduated, all the ingredients were back in the casserole. They ate it because they liked it, except for Mamie, who decided to study abroad in Montréal, and vowed never to eat ratatouille again. A vow that would only last a couple of months, until she met André, who, on their third date, told her that ratatouille was his favourite. Mamie confessed that she used to make it all the time, and on their fourth date, made it from memory. It tasted the way it had before. Mamie ate it because she liked it.
From then on, ratatouille accompanied everything. It accompanied every season. Mamie made it cold in the summer, when the days were hot and the sun poured itself over the skin like a syrup. It accompanied guests. With a baguette and a nice wine. And it accompanied news –it was there the night André became Papa, and then the night he became Papi.
3. Cook ingredients
Place the empty casserole on stove and set to medium heat. Put olive oil in casserole and add each ingredient separately. Stir the eggplants, zucchinis, and onion until golden, and the tomatoes, and peppers until they are soft. Add more olive oil to casserole between each ingredient.
Mamie adds the eggplant first, the thick white chunks sizzle, and the smell wafts up into the stove lights. She adds the eggplant first because it requires the most patience. Eggplant is like a sponge, it will absorb the olive oil until it turns yellow –not golden. You must be patient with it though, because the heat softens the white sponginess, turns it gold, and then releases the olive oil back into the pan, where it hisses until the sound is smothered by the zucchinis, onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, tomato juice, balsamic vinegar, salt, fresh basil, lemon zest and finally, the thyme. Watching over it all, are the stove lights, which make the bubbling Creuset the most important thing in the kitchen. Mamie’s aged fingers pierce these spotlights, stirring together the tomato juice and the onions with her wooden spoon. Mamie’s wrists move gently; she already knows the feel of the eggplants and zucchinis as she scoops them up from the bottom of the dish, to the surface where the golden coins, the sweet onion strands and the tomato sauce blend together like art.
Fold the ingredients together like a blanket, Maman told Mamie when she was still just learning. Like a blanket, fold, fold, Mamie kept repeating to herself, but the feel was out of reach. Mamie scooped up the ingredients from the bottom of the casserole, and twisted her wrist at the surface, so that the ingredients tumbled down off of the spoon. When Maman tucked Mamie into bed, pulling the blanket up over Mamie’s little shoulders, Mamie smiled and said, “Je suis comme une courgette, maman.”
[I am like a zucchini, mommy.]
“Oui, comme une courgette, ma belle.” She said, and kissed her goodnight. And after that, Maman called Mamie sa petite courgette, her little zucchini.
The first time Mamie made ratatouille, she was fascinated by the way the pot bubbled. What made it bubble? She wondered, spooning the tomato sauce. Every time Mamie makes ratatouille now, she thinks about Maman’s reply, the vegetables are dancing at the bottom of the pot, and singing –the bubbles, that’s the way the vegetables sing.
The last time Mamie made ratatouille was for Papi. The stovetop has been clean for weeks. The finger-worn stove light switch in the hood has been untouched, the metal filter hangs beneath a film of dormant grease, the wooden spoon collects dust, and the Creuset is vacant in the closed drawer.
In the immediacy after, Mamie’s son and daughter and granddaughter came to take care of her, and to walk Toutou, Mamie’s fourteen-year-old Golden Retriever. Mamie stays in bed with Toutou. It is the last place she saw Papi, or at least, it is the last place Papi saw her. The bed is dimpled with what’s left of him –a horizontal crease in the sheets between Mamie’s side and his. They never slept well cuddling, nor could they fall asleep apart. The solution sat in the heart of their bed, in that horizontal crease where their arms reached out, and their fingers interlaced.
Toutou mourns too, in the way that dogs do. She is exceedingly calm, and curled at Mamie’s toes. She doesn’t seem to understand sadness in the way that Mamie does, sadness from memories, from photographs –what was and what never will be again. But the way Toutou looks at Mamie changed. Toutou refuses to cross over to where Papi used to sleep. Dogs seem to understand loss.
Mamie spends all her time sleeping. Sometimes when Mamie is asleep, Papi is there, acting out an old memory, like walking hand-in-hand in the glow of the Vieux Montréal. Sometimes, they are dancing, swaying to Jean Sablon. Sometimes, he consoles her. She can hear his voice. His voice that was warm and sweet, and always brought her comfort. When he spoke, his tongue was like hot pears. But when Mamie wakes, the music stops, the room is dark, and there is only that horizontal crease across the bed.
Mamie watches Toutou’s belly expanding and falling at her toes. Toutou’s legs shake, as she gets up and stretches. Clara, her daughter, and Lucie, her granddaughter, are here to walk Toutou. It is three P.M., the time they always come, after Clara’s work.
“Mamie, puisque je sais combien t’adore les pommes,” Lucie says, as Clara opens the blinds, letting the room breathe in the fresh daylight, “Je t’ai apporté une pomme de notre pommier.”
[Grandma, because I know how much you love apples, I brought you an apple from our apple tree.]
To tell you the truth, apples weren’t her favourite. Raspberries were Mamie’s favourite. But when her daughter and granddaughter had moved into a house with a little green apple tree, and her granddaughter, who must’ve been five or six at the time, had brought her green apples in her Winnie the Pooh bag and asked Mamie if she liked apples, Mamie responded surely, “C’est mon fruit préféré.”
[It is my favourite fruit.]
When Mamie first bit into Lucie’s crooked little apple that was pocked, and was brown and flaking in the curve where the skin dipped into the stem, she looked at her granddaughter’s anticipatory smile and realised that apples were her favourite. Every fall since then, Lucie brought Mamie apples. In the daylight, the one she brought today looked pinched, as though even it had tasted how sour it was. Mamie took a bite and wiped the tart juice from her mouth.
“Merci, Lucie.” She said, setting the apple on her nightstand.
“Je sais qu’elle n’était pas tout à fait prête, donc j’en ai apporté d’autres.” Lucie unfurled the cloth she’d brought, on Mamie’s bed, revealing three shiny red grocery store apples. [I know that it wasn’t ripe yet, so I brought you more.] “Laquelle, Mamie? Apple Envy, Empire, Jazz, Pazazz?” [Which one, grandma?]
Mamie dug the heels of her hands into the mattress and pushed herself up so that she was sitting. This was clearly an attempt to make her smile. Clara and Lucie never talked to Mamie like this, about apples. Clara, who hadn’t processed what happened, and who’d been treating this more like a phase, like Papa was on vacation, or a long day at work —like he was coming back— spoke to Mamie during these three P.M. rendez-vous, transactionally. Did Toutou eat? Has Olivier come today? Have you gotten out of bed? And Lucie was still too young to understand death, let alone deal with it. Lucie was quiet and avoided looking at Mamie, at her tired pink eyes, and spoke only to her when she was petting Toutou. But today, Clara was quiet and Lucie had brought apples.
Lucie placed the red apples on Mamie’s dresser. Clara kneeled so that instead of looking down at Mamie, she looked up at her, like when she was a little girl. Mamie could see in her eyes that something had changed. The postponement of grief had thawed, Clara’s eyes were tender. Clara reached up into the bed, and wrapped her arms around Mamie, squeezing her eyes shut. “Ça va aller, maman.” She said, her chin nestled in Mamie’s shoulder.
[It’ll be okay, mom.]
4. Braise in oven for 30 minutes.
Put lid on casserole and place in oven to let the vegetables absorb the juices.
Mamie had washed her sheets the morning that Olivier, Mamie’s son, and Clara visited her together. It was four P.M.
“Maman, je crois qu’il est temps.” Olivier said, taking a seat next to Clara on the bed. “On est dimanche.”
[Mom, I think it’s time. It’s Sunday.]
Mamie conceded with a nod, knowing what Sunday meant –Le repas du dimanche. These were sacred dinners, a tradition that Papi had started, that no matter how busy everyone was during the week, everyone would gather for the repas du dimanche and déguster a good meal together. The repas du dimanche was the long breath of the week.
Clara took Mamie’s hand in hers and told her that she’d tried to teach Lucie how to make ratatouille last week, but she couldn’t make hers like Mamie’s. Mamie knew what Clara was asking.
“Laissez-moi me changer. Je vous rencontre en bas.” Mamie responded.
[Let me get changed. I’ll meet you downstairs.]
Toutou jumped off the bed and Olivier closed the door behind him. Across the bed was Mamie and Papi’s dresser. Mamie looked at it, at the three unopened drawers on Papi’s side, at the desktop calendar with his hand-written inscriptions, today, optométriste 14h30, at the frame with the picture of them in Venice, their honeymoon. Mamie picked up the picture and rolled her thumb over the glass.
Downstairs, Lucie was petting Toutou who was sprawled in the middle of the kitchen. The yellow stove lights were on, beneath it, were Mamie’s cherry red Creuset and wooden spoon. On the countertop were all the ingredients Mamie needed. Next to the stove, the olive oil trapped the light in its bottle, glowing a rich gold. Mamie’s kitchen was waiting to come alive again.
Mamie told Lucie to preheat the oven. But Mamie couldn’t start the recipe. She couldn’t start because she started the recipe the way Maman did, by placing her ring near the sink. Mamie blew out a breath and left the kitchen. She returned with the Jean Sablon CD that Olivier had given her for her birthday, and put it in her 2006 Sony Compact Disc Player. The case was cracked, a white lightning bolt rushed through the plastic. The air filled with the hum of Sablon’s song “J’attendrai”. Mamie closed her eyes and swayed. This way she still wore Papi.
Mamie twisted the silver band, struggling at the knuckle. A ring of untanned skin remained. “J’attendrai, le jour et la nuit, j’attendrai toujours, ton retour.” She placed the ring by the sink.
Lucie got to her feet and watched Mamie, the way she chopped the ingredients, stirring the air, and tried to follow. Lucie sliced the zucchini into coins. Mamie chopped the garlic. “Je suis une femme, Maman,” Mamie had said to Maman, one night before bed, when she’d noticed that the smell of garlic had stayed in her fingertips. [I’m a woman now, mom.] Mamie had pressed her fingers to Maman’s nose. Thinking about it now, Mamie smiled.
Toutou’s black nose twitched with each new sizzling ingredient. The windows of Mamie’s house started to fog up. Mamie slipped her oversized oven mittens over Lucie’s hands, and let her do the honours of placing the Creuset into the oven.
5. Set on table.
The Sunday night table was set. Clara had ironed the linen napkins and draped a cloth over the table. The candles projected an orange flicker over the plates. Olivier’s husband and infant son came. The baguette was taken out of the oven, the crust was cut –a crisp shell for the dough that was hot and soft inside. The pieces, were wrapped up in a cloth and placed in the bread basket. At the centre of the table, was the ratatouille that Mamie and Lucie had made. Mamie removed the lid and the salty tanglement of tomato juice and garlic billowed up from the Creuset, the heat kissing Mamie’s cheeks. Lucie leaned over the table to see the art she’d made, grinning with pride. Mamie looked too. “C’est la plus belle combinaison de couleurs. Regarde très bien, Jacqueline.” Maman used to say. [It is the most beautiful combination of colours. Get a good look, Jacqueline]. Lumps of pale green, and dark, almost brownish, purple, swirls of tomato sauce and thyme, a dappling of sour lemon zest, fresh basil, slick with the sheen of olive oil. “Jacqueline, tu es une vraie artiste.” Papi said, every time Mamie unveiled her ratatouille. “Merci, mon amour.” And he’d kiss her on the cheek. [Jacqueline, you are a real artist. Thank you, my love.] This is the art of the people. The heat sliding down your throat and into your stomach, the perfect fullness, the soft textures, the oils –that is what it tastes like to eat art. Everyone had taken a seat around the ratatouille, and together, they took a long breath.
The wine was opened, the baguette was distributed. The juices spread into their cheeks, and with each mouthful, against the undertone of tomato, there was a new taste: basil, thyme, sweet onion. Mamie took a bite –it tasted like hot pears, and long fingers, perfumed with garlic.
The next time Mamie made ratatouille with Lucie, Mamie guided Lucie’s hand when she was spooning the vegetables over the stove. Lucie’s movements didn’t have the learned sureness of Mamie’s. As Lucie stirred, a chunk of zucchini fell out of the pot. “La courgette a tombé.” She said. [The zucchini fell.] While the casserole was in the oven, Lucie chased Toutou around the kitchen, but Lucie missed her footing and fell onto the floor.
“Je suis comme une courgette, Mamie.” Lucie giggled.
[I’m like a zucchini, grandma.]
“Oui, ma belle, comme une courgette.”
For my dad who taught me how to make my first ratatouille last week.
Noémie Boucher is 20 years old and an aspiring novelist. Born in Richmond, British Columbia, she fell in love with literature at a young age. She is currently putting the finishing touches on an adventure manuscript that she started writing when she was 15. Noémie hopes to someday write novels to transport, inspire and touch readers, the same way literature has done for her.