At long last, we've got a cartoon character praising the virtues of veggies! Does it matter that it's a rat? And he's not even that cute. I refer, bien sûr, to Remy, the long-tailed lead in Pixar's culinary tale Ratatouille.
Never in the history of cinema has this simple, classic French dish of summer vegetables been so lovingly celebrated. There's a climactic scene, a nod to Proust and his much-loved madeleines, where fusty food critic Anton Ego (who looks to be on the lam from a Tim Burton film) is transported by a rather refined interpretation of this humble blend of onions, bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and garlic. The sequence is so stunning it reduced Slate's Dana Stevens to tears.
Thanks to scenes like that, Ratatouille-the-movie is ratcheting up demand for ratatouille-the-dish in restaurants and inspiring newspapers all over the country to print ratatouille recipes perfectly timed for all that ripe produce that's filling our farmers' markets.
NY Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni hails the success of Ratatouille at the box office as a triumph of enlightened eating over mindless munching, and notes that a fable with a foodie hero would have been unthinkable until recently:
I'm not sure that two decades ago, or even a decade ago, it would have been possible to make and successfully market a Cinderella story set in the fussy world of haute cuisine, a furry fairy tale that presents a snooty dismissal of inferior victuals as a badge of honor and path to glory.
Bruni points out that Ratatouille's alleged premise is that "anyone can cook," but the movie is really more of a mélange of egalitarianism and elitism. Yes, even a lowly rodent can learn to cook, but just like the rest of us, his culinary endeavors will succeed or fail depending on the quality and freshness of his ingredients.
Am I the only one who finds this message pretty radical for an animated film supposedly aimed at kids? And it seems all the more astonishing when you contrast it to DreamWorks' Shrek the Third, with its endless tie-ins to processed foods that target toddlers' taste buds.
Now, I happened to love the original Shrek -- having been an ugly duckling myself, I was delighted to see a cartoon challenge our notions of beauty. But whatever good Shrek may have done on behalf of the humble and homely is being utterly undermined by the way the big ugly lug is shilling for Big Food. And he's doing it on a global scale. NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who went to Australia last week to speak at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, checked out a local supermarket and posted the following dismayed dispatch from Down Under:
Shrek was everywhere. I counted at least ten special displays of Shrek-illustrated foods positioned at the ends of 5 aisles, along one entire wall (with a blow up Shrek doll), and in stand-alone areas. Shrek III has arrived in Australia but does Australia really need a store full of Shrek-green Froot Loops (devoid of fruit, of course), Shrek cheese-flavoured snacks, Shrek-illustrated chocolate flavoured biscuits, and Shrek candies? And a local McDonald's also has a Shrek tie-in. This is about one thing and one thing only: marketing junk food to kids.
"Not a good idea," adds Dr. Nestle in her eternally understated way.
It's no accident that the bad guy in Ratatouille hawks a line of microwavable convenience foods, because the real villain in Ratatouille is fake food. But can Remy's real food revival make a dent in sales of Shrek-sanctioned snack foods? At the very least, Ratatouille's giving Americans a taste of what cooking could be if we stopped abdicating the role of feeding ourselves to a handful of corporations.
I guess it's fitting that Big Food's hired a monster to market its overprocessed crap. Whether Ratatouille's Remy will prove to be an effective spokesvermin for the Slow Food movement remains to be seen, but I'm betting he's already got a pretty big freegan fan base to build on.