I was a Philistine where food was concerned until after high school. Although I hated it as a kid, I credit my inner palate’s eventual awakening at least partially to zucchini, a peculiar but versatile vegetable I now love, sliced into paper-thin discs and steamed in a little chicken broth, butter, and salt, or baked in a savory bath of cream, grated gruyere, paprika, dry mustard, and minced fresh tarragon. However, in the 70s, when I was a mid-sized kid, my mother would pull a hairy two-pound zeppelin from our alarmingly productive Phoenix backyard garden, and then she would fold it into a casserole with tofu and serve it to us horrified kids for supper. I spent my childhood in fear and loathing of the stuff.
In eleventh grade, I went to a Waldorf school in New York State, across the country from my family in Arizona. I had won a full scholarship, and I lived with my English teacher and did babysitting and housework, including cooking, in exchange for room and board, and waitressed at the Threefold Guest House for pocket money. I was a terrible cook when I moved in with that family and a better one when I left two years later, thanks to my fear of the disapprobation of the mother of the household, who made it clear that she thought I was a lazy, dim-witted layabout who ate too much and did too little to help her.
Although I made friends, I was homesick and lonely there. I ate so much I was soon chubby, a condition I had never experienced before even remotely. I ate anything, including, after my waitressing shifts on Sundays, the coarse, damp zucchini bread that issued forth from the Guest House kitchen as dessert. This stuff was wretchedly wholesome, granular with whole-wheat flour and sweaty with oil. Flecks of grated zucchini criss-crossed each piece like the thick cloth ribbons we used to make potholders with at day camp. I didn’t care; I ate it anyway. I missed my mother.
The turning point for me with zucchini came right after I graduated, when I was eighteen. I spent that year after high school in the dead geographical center of France, a muddy and otherwise nondescript farming region called the Allier. I lived at a place called La Mhotte, a Waldorf school and anthroposophical seminary for young adults, a crumbling, grand old chateau with drafty, radiator-heated, ancient dormitories built around a large bare inner courtyard. I worked as an au pair girl for two immensely kind, impecunious, scattershot, warm-hearted teachers named Vivian and Pierre. I took care of their four little boys before and after school and was expected to cook things for their family that I had never made before, with ingredients I had never seen before — mache, creme fraiche, a whole skinned rabbit. I learned to make soufflés and mousses, stews and soups from the unflappably British but resolutely French-transplanted Vivian.
Homesick loneliness had become so familiar by then, I hardly noticed it anymore. I leaned out the casement window of the della Negras’ kitchen in the evenings when I’d finished the dishes, weeping habitual tears of longing, a feeling so powerful it haunts me still, even now that most of its hopes have been fulfilled.
Every weeknight at la Mhotte, in order to help me learn French, I was invited to eat in the Chateau dining room with the seminary students, about two dozen beautiful, cool French people in their twenties. We all sat at a long candlelit table together; I listened to them jibber-jabber away and tried to imitate the way they ate, because they seemed to do it better, being French, than anyone I had ever observed at a table before.
We ate a lot of home-grown food from the biodynamic farm attached to the Chateau: vegetables and herbs, eggs and homemade cheese. One night the entire dinner consisted of only boiled zucchini, boiled potatoes, and homemade bread and cheese. They called the zucchini “courgettes,” but they didn’t fool me: I knew that stuff when I saw it. I sat down with disappointment and dread.
And then I tasted the zucchini. It was sublime, subtly multi-dimensional in flavor and velvety in texture, not like zucchini at all but some other fairylike, delicate thing of palest green, very fresh, with an herblike essence.
That zucchini woke me up. Food was not at all what I had thought it was, it had possibilities and qualities that I had never suspected. I began to pay close attention to food; I began to see it not as a substance to assuage hunger or homesickness, but as something to savor when it was good, like a well-written book or piece of music. Cooking came alive for me that year, too. I learned to taste.
There are various approaches to ratatouille — some cooks sauté the vegetables separately and add them to the simmered tomato sauce, or layer and bake them, and some roast the vegetables first. I am lazy, no doubt, but I don’t think it makes enough difference to do this the labor-intensive way. I say, chop 8 cloves of garlic, 1 good-sized eggplant, 3 peppers of various colors, 4 medium zucchini, 2 onions, and 4 blanched peeled tomatoes and mince a lot of fresh thyme and parsley. You can also use basil or herbes de Provence. Heat ¼ to ½ (up to you) cup good olive oil in a 5-qt Dutch oven over medium heat until it shimmers. Put everything in with salt and pepper, stir, cover, and simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally, adding another splash of olive oil if you want. If it doesn’t look done yet, cook it for a little longer. Turn off the flame and let it sit for half an hour. Eat it over polenta – and the next day, when it’s even better, eat it plain at room temperature as a side dish.