Some stories are too good to be false...
March 3, 2010 9:42 PM   Subscribe

[CulinaryEtymologyFilter] Can anyone explain the origins of the word ratatouille? I heard an explanation once, but suspect it's false...

Many years ago, someone told me a story about the origin of the name ratatouille (the French vegetable stew, not the movie). It's a neat story, and it went like this:

In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussians laid siege to Paris, cutting off their food supply. The food shortage was so severe that it forced the Parisians to, among other things, raid the Paris zoo for meat, and start serving rat dishes, like rat paté. One inventive chef found that he could make rat palatable by stewing it with flavorful vegetables, like tomatoes and zucchini. The resulting dish was called ratatouille, and became popular enough that it persisted even after the siege was lifted, sans rat. But the name stuck and gave us the dish we have today!

It's a great story to tell at parties, but I recently discovered that it has the unfortunate flaw of being false. At least I think it's false. The whole thing about the siege of Paris, and rat paté, and raiding the zoo is true. But I can't find any references that cite this event as the origin of the term ratatouille. The etymologies I've found claim it comes from the French verb touiller, to toss / coat food. But it could be a pun, rat (same word in English and French) + touiller. Researching this is difficult now because any search for 'ratatouille' and 'rat' of course returns all links about the movie. :)

Has anyone else heard this story, or something to definitively put it to rest?
posted by molybdenum to Food & Drink (11 answers total)
I've never even heard that story. I'm not saying that Wikipedia is the end-all-be-all on such matters, but...
posted by desuetude at 9:49 PM on March 3, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah, I'm sure it has something to do with touiller, as wikipedia states...but it could theoretically be a pun of rat + touiller, right?
posted by molybdenum at 9:56 PM on March 3, 2010

Wiktionary's entry is similar:
From French ratatouille, from Occitan ratatolha (ratatouille is a dish from Nice, in Provence), French form from diminutive prefix tat- + touiller (“‘to stir’”), from Latin tudiculare (“‘to grind, to mix’”).

Curiously, nothing about the first syllable. Other sources describe the origin of that syllable as "uncertain".

I agree that the Parisian-starvation story is more than a bit urban-legendish, FWIW. Not impossible, but after all - the rest of the dish's name originates from Provence, and the dish is traditionally vegetarian. That's two strikes.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:14 PM on March 3, 2010

«Tatouiller» and «ratouiller» are, according to the Petit Robert "expressive forms" of «touiller». «Rata» is also military slang for a coarse stew.

So no evidence for or against in the matter of actual rats, as opposed to a fairly ordinary example of French phonetic juggling.
posted by Wolof at 10:18 PM on March 3, 2010

... and for what it's worth, although I'm not certain it would make sense if "rata" was military slang for coarse stew mostly because of the latin word "rata," which in french just means what you might think: rate. Probably equivalent to english "ration," although again I don't know for sure.
posted by koeselitz at 10:21 PM on March 3, 2010

«Rata» is short for «ratatouille». I neglected to clarify this, which is information I got from the same source I cited above.
posted by Wolof at 10:39 PM on March 3, 2010

And the French word for "ration" is «ration», just quietly. Ain't that a coinkydink?
posted by Wolof at 10:43 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whaaaat? "Nice is in Provence"? Oh good grief am I ever glad I have a multi-wiki account. (It doesn't say that any more, because I just corrected it. Someone who should not be translating, had translated the French ratatouille entry incorrectly.)

Answering the question: yes, ratatolha is often given as the origin, as well as touiller, according to the French wiktionary for "ratatouille" and its entry on the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales. The French wiktionary entry's definition, translated into English, says: "to stir and mix, with the influence of the radical tat-, which expresses diminution."

Bit of history: Nice is not in Provence. Nice, historically, was part of Savoy, which was not part of France. It was an independent duchy between France and Italy, that later swung between Italian and French control. It was annexed by France in 1860, and there are still strong feelings amongst Niçois about their freedom; quite a few do not feel French or Italian, but Niçois. The Niçois language is still spoken.
posted by fraula at 12:42 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

The peerless Oxford Companion to Food clears up the term's origin. View the book here and use the "Search inside the book" feature to find the fascinating entry for Ratatouille.

(Short version: the term "derived from ratouiller and tatouiller, two expressive forms of of the French verb touiller, meaning to stir up." But the rest of the entry is worth reading too.)
posted by snarfois at 6:00 AM on March 4, 2010

Agreeing with everyone else that rats don't have anything (historically) to do with ratatouille. I've never heard the story, but the rat-eating part is true, so it initially might sound plausible.

The entry for "rat" from my old Larousse Gastronomique:

Rodent which was elevated to the rank of comestible during the siege of Paris in 1870, and which is eaten in certain regions. The flesh of well-nourished rats can be, it seems, of good quality, but sometimes with a musky taste. Rats nourished in the wine stores of the Gironde were at one time highly esteemed by the coopers, who grilled them, after having cleaned out and skiined them, on a fire of broken barrels, and seasoned them with a little oil and plenty of shallot. The dish, which was then called Cooper's Entrecôte, would be the origin of Entrecôte à la bordelaise.

Stewing is not the way you'd cook a rat.
posted by neroli at 6:46 AM on March 4, 2010

The OED says "< French ratatouille, kind of stew (1778), probably < an expressive prefix + touiller to stir up (see TOIL v.1), perhaps after French regional (western) tatouille kind of stew, bad stew, potato gratin, or (Normandy) ratouille stew of meat and potatoes."
posted by grouse at 8:28 AM on March 4, 2010

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