How do you spell ratatouille? “Educating Rita” by Willy Russell

Going to see a production of “Blood Brothers” at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal last year brought me back to Willy Russell, whose plays I love but – sadly – didn’t form any part of my degree course. Today’s post is about what is probably his best known work – “Educating Rita”. Written in 1985, the play tells the story of just two characters – Rita and Frank – who have weekly tutorials in a northern university, where Rita is studying for an Open University course in English Literature. Perhaps the most poignant line in this highly entertaining play is when Rita asks Frank “What’s it like to be free?” Later on she tells him that education has given her a “choice” (Act 1 Scene 1 and Act 2 Scene 7). Although Rita’s struggles are clearly marked by the social expectations of working-class women in the 1980s, this seems to be to be a universal issue; education allows us to see the world in a more holistic way and enables us to choose what life it is we want to live.

Yet at times in the play both Rita misses the point and think that being “educated” means “what clothes to wear, what wine to buy, what plays to see, what papers and books to read” (Act 2 Scene 6). She could have added “what food to eat”. From the opening scene, food is one of the cultural markers which suggest the social differences between Rita and Frank. For example, when Frank discusses having an argument with his girlfriend which started with oeufs en cocotte, Rita completely fails to understand the French. At another point in the play she chucks him a soft drink, which Frank discreetly leaves on his desk, undrunk (or perhaps this is because of its non-alcoholic nature, rather than its provenance?)DSC_0856

Another food which separates Rita and Frank is ratatouille. At one point, Frank says that “I know that ratatouille cannot be burned […] you could incinerate ratatouille and still it wouldn’t burn” (Act 1 Scene 1). This sounds like my type of cooking! The choice of French cuisine is clearly deliberate, as throughout the play France comes to symbolise the epitome of sophistication and elegance – having a holiday there is something for Rita to aspire to, and for Frank to be disenchanted with. There is, perhaps, a certain irony in the choice of a dish which has been transformed from its humble origins (it was originally made by poor Provencal peasants who were using up the vegetables which were in season) to a refined repast. Like Rita, ratatouille has been given a new identity.

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Ultimately, Rita realises that this type of food symbolises a relatively empty type of education (“she spends half her life eatin’ wholefoods an’ healthfoods to make her live longer” – Act 2 Scene 7) because choosing the right type of meal is not, in itself, a sign of an educated mind. However, this month I have chosen ratatouille as our recipe. I hope you enjoy!

Recipe

Ingredients
1 aubergine
2 courgettes
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
A handful of basil leaves
Tomatoes
1 yellow pepper
Method
1.       Finely chop the onion and garlic, then fry on a low heat for 5-10 minutes
2.       In the meantime chop the rest of the vegetables into chunks (not too small – you don’t want the dish to become mush!). Then add to the pan and cook with the lid on for a further 10 minutes.
3.       As Frank’s girlfriend seems to have finished her ratatouille off in the oven, we will do it her way! Transfer the vegetables into an oven dish and add the basil leaves, roughly chopped. Cook at 180 degrees C for about 20 minutes.

 

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