Monday, January 3, 2011

Eating for Memory

Remy, the aspiring culinary rodent.
Ratatouille (2007), © Disney/Pixar
I have a secret: One of my favorite movies is about a rat who can cook—Disney/Pixar's Ratatouille. (Admittedly this isn't Wikileaks caliber information, but it's not exactly news that I share with people either.) It's the story of a rat who loves French food, and dreams of cooking for the best restaurant in France. The idea of a rat handling food preparation isn't the most appetizing image, and Remy (the culinary rodent) faces an uphill battle. The idea is so outside the norm of acceptable food practices—imagine a rat preparing your dinner!—that I feel strangely about my affection for these characters, but I can't help it. Their love for food makes me think of the connection we have with certain dishes, and the ways in which flavors can help shape our identity and remind us of our histories.

When my parents moved to Florida five years ago, they took many of my food traditions with them. I never really learned how to make many of our cultural foods. As a teenager I suppose I had presumed they would always be close enough for me to request breakfast staples and special occasion dishes as needed or desired. Fortunately, S and I live within driving distance of a thriving West Indian community, so when I start to long for a taste of "home," I can find something close enough to the flavors from my childhood to satisfy. It's not quite the same, but it is enough.

For the New Year, short of a full Trinidadian feast including dhal puri and rum cake, the thing I wanted most was a currants roll. This is my favorite pastry—and though simple, when done properly, with actual currants (and not raisins or candied fruits), it's divine. It reminds me of any number of things that are connected with Trinidad: the roti shops, the markets, the taxis. But more than that, it reminds me of the Saturday morning breakfasts we had when I was a kid. Regardless of where we lived, my dad was always able to find a Trinidadian roti shop and Saturday morning breakfasts usually included a currants roll to top off a doubles. He'd always bring two, one for each of us. My mom never cared for them, but liked to eat the crust off of his—which made him a little nuts because you can't just eat the insides, you need the crunch of the crust too. It's a pet peeve we share to this day.

S's mom is a fantastic cook. For our New Year's Eve festivities, she made an array of great Bengali dishes. But the holidays are a time when food and family commingle, and with my own relatives being rather dispersed for the season, I really think I was looking for something culinary that was significant to me. So S and I bundled up and headed into Queens. We picked up the Trinidadian feast that I been craving, and a fresh currants roll. I ate it just as I did when I was a kid: peeling back the flaky layers one by one, and savoring as many of those sweet currants as possible.

Food can mean so much more than sustenance. My favorite scene from Ratatouille is when famed and feared food critic Anton Ego is served the title dish (prepared by Remy, of course), and is transported back to his childhood—we flash back to his family home in the countryside where a cold and red-nosed Ego is served this rustic meal by his mother and is warmed instantly (see below). Food equals safety, comfort, and a sense of self. Thank goodness I can at least purchase the foods that comfort me best. Though perhaps it's time I learned how to make some of them.

Ego is reminded of his childhood with a savory bite.


  1. How cool that you have a Trinidadian background. My parents are from Trinidad so I grew up on a diet of curry chicken, tomato choka, roti and bake. I visited T'dad in the '90s and loved shark and bake, tamarind balls but doubles - yucko (although my husband loved them)

  2. How odd! Yesterday night I watched Ratatouille for the first time (they were showing it on Spanish TV channel called Antena 3) and today I see your post in my favourite Anthropology blog!

    And I loved the movie! I would not say it is the best movie I've ever seen, but it came up hugely in my top3 best animated movies all time.

    I don't believe in oddities, and this is the kind of things in which my girlfriend always says: "Things happen for a reason". I've got no idea if this sentence has any anthropology basis/connection, but it surely has not any scientific one.

    Again... how odd! :)

    Congratz for this amazing blog!

  3. cass_m: Bake is purely a Maracus experience for me. And Doubles are a close second to currants rolls. Great, now I'm starving and it's only 9:30! :)

    Anon: I'm glad you enjoyed the movie—it's certainly not the best movie ever, but it's definitely a favorite. I like the idea that foods can cross so many boundaries.