On the Side | Viva ratatouille - the movie and the ideal

Posted: July 19, 2007

It is the time, almost, of ratatouille, the local, field-grown tomatoes finally blushing up, and skinny eggplants and new zucchini, sweet peppers and cool, porcelain onions, all ripening for the picking - although the peppers are not quite what you'd call abundant, yet.

It is a French peasant dish, as the movie tie-in charmingly informs, a homey, kitchen-sink stew, basically, of all the stuff in the Proven├žal (or Philadelphia) summer garden - plus garlic, olive oil, and, in some versions, basil, which is nothing if not gone totally berserk next to my pokey tomato crop.

It is the flavor of seriously deep July and August, of sunshine and juicy squash, meaty eggplant, sweet onion and tangy tomato, uncomplicated and mightily soulful. Bake it with fresh eggs cracked into wells on top; it can be a full Sunday supper.

Ratatouille, the movie, of course, is about a lot of things - about the triumph of the little guy, about grace under pressure, about keeping hope alive, about listening to your heart, going the distance, etc.

But it is also about rescuing a culinary reputation (of the late chef Auguste Gusteau) from an impostor who would cheapen it; turn it into a brand to peddle a line of frozen burritos and Chinese dishes - "make it CHINE-easy."

So it came to pass that on the eve of my second trip to the Narberth Theater to see the film, I found myself contemplating a sample packet of the summer's new seasoning shaker, something called "Great'a Tomat'a, with Lycopene!"

The Great'a Tomat'a Web site has a succinct critique of what's wrong with your supermarket tomato: It's not fully ripened on the vine, the better to enhance shelf-life. So its aroma, color, juiciness, chemistry and flavor are underdeveloped, leaving you with a pale imitation that tastes like, well, you know. . . .

Even New Jersey's storied tomato fits that profile, its once-vast acreage vastly shrunken, its genetics - favoring thicker skin and longer shelf-life - now little different from any other commercial tomato. Talk about a reputation squandered!

This is not news. Tomato-modifying began falling on hard times years ago. A bad turn? In 1994, the genetically modified Flavr Savr tomato slowed down ripening, so the fruit could stay on the vine longer, but not spoil on the way to market.

But it didn't taste very good. And one Cornell horticulture professor was moved to observe, it was bred from a bland variety to begin with: "There was very little flavor to save."

For $3.49 the shaker-full, Great'a Tomat'a (Flavr Savr? Great'a Tomat'a? Who names these things? Rappers?) promises to restore the tomato's glory; the missing ingredients of flavor, aroma, the tart, the tang.

So what technology has so carelessly expunged, technology will now artfully restore, cutting nature out of the equation entirely: Lab creates lousy tomato. Lab creates way to mask lousy tomato's taste.

Except that the seasoning does nothing of the sort. I tried it on a hard, red, so-labeled "Jersey tomato," and a slice tasted flavorless without it - and flavorless with it. "What is it, baby powder?" to quote my 11-year-old granddaughter.

And so we went on our way, ambling over the bridge humped across the SEPTA tracks, to see Ratatouille.

The movie reminds you, among other things, that anyone can add flavor to food, but with mixed result. (The model for the stunningly swirled ratatouille in the movie, by the way, was created by California's celebrated master chef Thomas Keller.)

But the very best flavor must already be in the eggplant, squash and tomato to truly get in the dish, the result of good seed and good earth, good sun and good rain.

And there is only one way for a restaurant to get that, the sous chef Colette confides: Grow it yourself, or bribe the best farmer to get the first pick.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. To view Rick's columns about remodeling his kitchen, along with a video, go to http://go.philly.com/rickskitchen.

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