‘Tell me how you made it, I’ll have a go at it when I get home,’ M. asked me. I told her. ‘I’m not sure about that part where you cube the aubergine then salt it and leave it to soften,’ she said, ‘sounds like a whole palaver. I think I’ll make mine without the aubergine.’ I told her the aubergine was the central to the dish; that leaving it out would be akin to cooking coq-au-vin without chicken. The recipe came from S., my go-to adviser on all things culinary. She is a sorcerer with a saucepan, a wizard with a whisk, the one to whom I turn when I need a cookery conundrum solved. It was S. who compiled a dinner party menu for the same M. of the aubergines, accompanied by a step-by-step cooking guide. Grateful but realistic, M. came back on email with the retort: ‘Does S. think I live in Downton Abbey awash with kitchen staff and butlers?’
For some, cooking is a futile act, like building sandcastles at the low tide mark or cleaning the portholes of an oil tanker. It true that cooking amounts to a litany of work that is immediately wiped out, demolished with (if you’re lucky) a few ‘yums’ between chews and swallows. And it leaves a huge mess. For others, it is an act of creativity, of love, of nurture. I know S. is one who doesn’t see cooking as an infinite conveyor belt; for her it’s a show of resourcefulness, of ingenuity, it’s a monotony buster. Maybe elusive street artist Banksy could teach us how to adopt a more philosophical attitude to the never-ending cookery treadmill of, ‘create-obliterate-create-obliterate’. I’m thinking of Banky’s picture of the girl holding the balloon, the one that self-shredded as it hung on Sotheby’s wall after being sold for £1 million. Afterwards Bansky quoted a line from Picasso: ‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.’
But creative urges are different for us all. M. told me that, on occasion, she has scraped a half-chopped onion into the bin (would Banksy approve?). Spent with the tediousness of slicing, it freed her up to do something – in her book – more creative. Not for her, Pablo Neruda’s, Ode To An Onion, which I find hilariously over the top: ‘You make us cry without hurting us./ I have praised everything that exists,/ but to me, onion, you are/ more beautiful than a bird/ of dazzling feathers,/ heavenly globe, platinum goblet,/ unmoving dance/ of the snowy anemone.’ Come on, it’s an onion! Is he mad? I look at a bowl of onions in my own kitchen. This is a ‘between’ month for me. I have a lull in visitors and, like M., I am going through a period where I am disinclined to cook. The onions have been untouched for so long that they’ve begun to sprout green shoots at the top. Having fallen out of favour with the chopping board they are begging to be buried in a little earth so they can follow their own creative urges. I could plant them, or, I could make Ratatouille.
Ratatouille, Douglas Dunn
please, this dish of ratatouille.
Neither will it invade Afghanistan
or boycott the Olympic Games in a huff.
It likes the paintings of Raoul Dufy,
It feeds the playboy and the working man.
Of wine and sun it cannot get enough.
It has no enemies, no, not even
Salade Niçoise or phoney recipes,
Not Leonid Brezhnev, no, not Ronald Reagan.
It is the fruits of earth, this ratatouille,
And it has many friends, including me.
Come lovers of ratatouille, and unite!
It is a sort of dream, which coincides
With the pacific relaxations called
Preferred Reality. Men who forget
Lovingly chopped up cloves of ail, who scorn
The job of slicing two good peppers thinly,
Then two large onions and six aubergines –
Those long, impassioned and imperial purples –
Which, with six courgettes you sift with salt
And cover with a plate for one round hour;
Or men who do no care to know about
The eight ripe pommes d’amour their wives have need of,
Preparing ratatouille, who give no thought to
The cup of olive oil that’s heated in
their heaviest pan, or onions, fried with garlic
For five observant minutes, before they add
Aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes;
Or men who give no thought to what their wives
Are thinking as they stand beside their stoves
When seasoning is sprinkled on, before
A bouquet garni is dropped in – these men
Invade Afghanistan, boycott the Games,
Call off their fixtures and prepare for war.
Cook for one hour, and then serve hot or cold.
Eat it, for preference, under the sun,
But, if you are Northern, you may eat
Your ratatouille imagining Provence.
Believe me, it goes well with everything,
As love does, as peace does, as summers do
Or any other season, as a lifetime does.
Acquire then, for yourselves, ingredients;
Prepare this stew of love, and ask for more.
Quick, before it is too late. Bon appétit!