This recipe will change your life.
That was the promise. She’d thought nothing of it, to be honest. After all, it had been a rough morning.
In truth, it had been a rough week, a rough month, a rough quarter, a rough year, and, when it all added up, a rough decade — made all the more frustrating by the feeling that she really had no right to feel this way, having suffered nothing beyond life resisting and continuing to resist her efforts to make it fall into line with her expectations and desires.
And today her plans, per usual, had been thwarted by complications. Her morning was meant to be spent simultaneously pursuing her dreams and making ratatouille — a simple peasant dish requiring little more than a bevy of summer vegetables, a few glugs of olive oil, and a pot big enough to hold it all, or so she’d thought.
But some time between making her plans and exacting them, she’d been saddled with several setbacks that at best were reminders that said dreams were in fact a statistical improbability and at worst indicators that she simply wasn’t good enough. Always teeter-tottering between the extremes of not enough and far too much, and always seeming to land on the one most inappropriate for the situation. In her most melodramatic moments, she was coming to believe that was her lot in life.
But she knew this mood would pass (even though she also knew it would come back), and so she gathered herself up and made her way to the farmers’ market.
In the rain.
She couldn’t curse it, as the poor parched brownery that had once been and hoped to be greenery again some day had suffered even more than humans through weeks of 100-degree heat. On a better morning, she might even have danced in it, or at the very least thrown her arms out and laughed at the sky. But this morning she kept her eyes cast downward, in part out of practicality to keep the raindrops off her glasses, and in part because, on mornings like these, she sometimes found it difficult to smile.
After the market (where she’d found plenty of tomatoes and squash, but no shallots or garlic) and the grocery store (where her foot had found a nice, deep puddle) and her necessary (though admittedly indulgent) coffee run, she made it home and set to the task of changing her life, or at least making lunch and dinner for a few days.
As it turned out, there would have been little time for writing that morning anyway, as the recipe directed her toward activities that left her standing barefoot in the kitchen for two hours straight peeling, chopping and/or puréeing batch after batch of everything she’d bought.
First three shallots. Their fumes made her eyes sting — not that it took much. She was embarrassingly sensitive to such things; she had once found herself wearing swim goggles to get through a particularly large batch of onions.
To give her eyes a break, she then tackled an entire head of garlic, whose pungent scent reminded her of her grandfather. He had been a magnificent and creative cook, and somewhere along the family lines, it had become tradition to use amounts of the bulbous herb bordering on ridiculous and maybe even insane to most people. But she had her grandfather’s genes, and, as she found herself both smiling and tearing up again, she wondered if the old saying, “Two heads are better than one,” would have been appropriate to apply in this situation, too.
She moved on to chopping the five small onions, which brought the tears to a blinding level. She let these ones spill down her cheeks. She remembered a past lover, who had once chopped onions for her to spare her the tears. It was an ironic benevolence, considering how pervasive the pain of that relationship had been. Still, she felt an acute longing for someone to chop onions for her again, and she was grateful when it was time to move on to the red peppers.
These evoked no memories or tears for her, and so she was able to focus her efforts on scoring right along the white ribs to avoid having to deal with the seeds that clung perilously to the underside of the stem. Into the food processor the pieces went, and she noted nothing beyond the fact that their obliteration turned them from bright red to a surprising shade of salmon-pink.
Next came the tomatoes.
She’d patiently waited to purchase them behind a couple of fellow market patrons. The man in charge — though the more appropriate term that came to mind was “farm boy,” as he had that slightly cocky but unoffensive confidence of someone who doesn’t yet know any better — was trying to create a rapport with the man considering his produce. “It’s two dollars for the corn?” the man had asked. “Yes, sir, but the worms are free,” he drawled, grinning. The girl had smiled at the joke, but the man was apparently not looking for amusement that morning. “I think I’ll try over there,” he said, gesturing to nowhere in particular. The farm boy just shrugged, unfazed, as he walked away. The farm boy had far less trouble charming the white-haired woman who stepped up next.
The scent of the cut tomatoes brought the girl back to the present. A friend had once stated that good, fresh tomatoes smelled very similar to roses. The girl tried to compare the scent of the open flesh with the one of petals in her mind. She couldn’t grasp the similarity, but one thing was for sure — they both smelled delightful. She cut a tiny piece from the tomato and popped it into her mouth. Somehow, she was not only tasting tomato but garlic and onion and salt and magic. It was quite possibly the best tomato she’d ever tasted. Though she felt a pang of regret, she dutifully dumped the segments into the blender, but not before stealing one more bite. She had a notion to simply pour the purée into a tall glass and call it a day, but she persisted on the promise that the recipe would be even more enlightening.
With the tear-inducing items having allowed the oil and low heat to mellow them, the girl poured the red pepper purée into the mix. The golden-white and the pepper pink would cook down into a rusty orange concoction as she began the long haul of chopping zucchini. By the time she was midway through the squash, it was time to sacrifice the tomato purée into the mix.
She continued to dice. As the ingredients in the pot melded into something more than their individual parts, her mind ran wildly through tunnels of memories, random thoughts, worries, disappointments, and hopes for the future.
The smell of August rain on the streets of Paris.
Her hand run through her hair revealing it was gaining volume and curl in equal proportions, thanks to the humidity.
Arms and legs intertwined in a booth.
Fingers tucked under when chopping, so you only lose skin and not digits — another trick she’d learned from her grandfather.
How the lives that look perfect from the outside are sometimes weighed down with the heaviest burdens.
Laughter at her own silliness that had yet resulted in a hug from a handsome and kind stranger in an alley behind a London theatre.
How the problem with being a manic pixie dream girl is that there’s the manic bit to deal with.
The realization that her heels were beginning to hurt, thanks to their lengthy contact with the hardwood floor.
Fear that she was defined in someone’s mind by her worst moment instead of her best intentions or even potential.
How she’d meant to put on some music when she’d started to help drown out her thoughts.
Amusement that she’d become too distracted by her thoughts to remember to put on said music.
Sadness at the acceptance of a reality in which she might never hear from someone again.
An image of Amélie Poulain, imagining the man she loved returning with the ingredient she needed for the cake she was baking, hearing the rattle of the strung beads in the doorway, turning with hope, and falling into tears at the sight of her cat.
A feeling of being impressed at how her own two dogs continued to hover, as they had since she’d began, waiting to devour anything that fell to the ground, whether it was edible or not. (She tossed them each a cube of zucchini for their troubles and smiled as they snatched them and ran away, lest she change her mind.)
A craving for a really good French baguette, and annoyance that she would be unable to satisfy it in the near future.
A piano player in a jazz bar, eyes closed, so passionately in the moment, standing and pounding the keys.
The need to switch over the laundry.
Her penchant for falling in temporary lust with musicians who lose themselves in the music on stage.
A line from a poem written for her, only a few weeks ago.
A longing for Paris, and then London, and then Paris again.
And finally she set the knife down. This recipe will change your life. The promise echoed in her mind as she slid the largest pan she owned, filled with zucchini and squash and eggplant, into the oven.
And then a new thought occurred to her: What if it could? She considered what she’d poured into the last few hours. Hadn’t she lived a lifetime in her mind, or at least a portion of it, as she’d worked? What if those happinesses, those moments of despair, those inklings of hope had found their way into the synergy of what she’d made? Surely they’d colored the experience itself. And if all the physical ingredients could combine to make something new, something different, something better than before, then who’s to say what else was possible?
And so she decided. This recipe would change her life. Perhaps it had already. All she had to do now was wait, and act, and taste, and savor. A good method for ratatouille, so why not for life?
Hours after she’d begun, she finally sat down with a bowl of her finished concoction. I’ve got a lot riding on you, she thought. Do your best. She tasted it. She had no regrets.