Published Summer, 2007
Edible Portland

“Do you know about Ratatouille?” she asks me.

I’m talking to my young niece who lives in New Jersey.

“Mm-hmm. I love it.”

“Me too!” she says with unmistakable enthusiasm.

I’m equal parts pleased, proud, and perplexed. When it comes to food, she’s always been open-minded and adventurous, with a palate more discerning than both her older sister’s and younger brother’s. But I never imagined she’d cozy up to the popular French dish from Provence. When and where had she made its acquaintance?

She hasn’t, exactly. Her ratatouille isn’t a vegetable dish; it’s an animated feature film of the same name. This nine-yearold’s first and only experience with ratatouille is pure pop culture à la Pixar! She gives me a synopsis: Remy, a rat living in the sewers of Paris, realizes his ambition of becoming a great chef by insinuating himself into a famous restaurant kitchen, where—quel surprise!—rats are unwelcome. We always end up here, talking about books and movies. I do what I can to nudge the conversation back to food. Isn’t it my duty as an aunt to encourage her epicurean leanings?

I tell her about the ratatouille I love, the one with tomatoes, peppers, onions, and eggplant. “Ugh. Eggplant might be my least favorite vegetable.” Ironic, since two-thirds of the world’s eggplant is grown in her home state of New Jersey. I suspect more of it ends up in the region’s celebrated eggplant parmigiana subs and pizza than in caponata, ratatouille’s Italian sister.

My niece is not alone in her disdain for eggplant. A member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family of edible flowering plants, it has long suffered unpleasant connotations. Originally domesticated in Southeast Asia 2,500 years ago, the eggplant became associated with madness when it arrived in India, a reputation that stuck into the Middle Ages when it reached the Near East. (“If you eat eggplant two times a day for 40 days, you’ll go crazy.”) Europeans followed suit: melanzana, the Italian word for eggplant, is a misinterpretation of mela insana or “mad apples.”

Its lack of popularity probably had more to do with overcoming eggplant’s bitterness, because eventually it was hobnobbing with happiness (in the Middle East, to dream of three aubergines signaled future bliss); wealth (an Arabian bride’s dowry was determined by the number of eggplant dishes in her repertoire); and high fashion (elite 5th century Chinese ladies stained their teeth gunmetal gray using a dye made from eggplant skins; when polished, their teeth gleamed like silver). Little by little, eggplant shed the last of its bitter tears.

The variety of eggplant introduced to the English-speaking world produced small, egg-shaped white and yellow fruit intended for ornamental use, hence the name. Though edible, they were displaced by the ubiquitous Black Beauty, a deep purple goose egg that provides the archetypal picture of an eggplant we carry around in our heads. Glossy-skinned, with a crown-like, bright green stem, it became king in home gardens, commercial farms, and most recipes. Slender Asian varieties are prevalent now, and in between is an exotic host of others: violet, magenta, pure white, pale green, red-orange, striped, plump and short, long and slender, and tiny, shiny orbs.

When picking eggplant, whether from the garden or the farmers’ market, choose smooth, firm examples with taut skin and a satiny sheen. The lighter the hue, the milder the flavor; white are the most bland, while reds and oranges are best suited for pickling. Good heft in the hand is desirable and indicates that the flesh isn’t spongy or seedy, characteristics that signal bitterness. A bright green stem is a hallmark of freshness. Eggplant will keep for a week but it begins to lose flavor and turn bitter after a day or two. Store it in a cool place, not warmer than 50 degrees, or in the refrigerator, wrapped in a towel to absorb moisture (they’re 95 percent water) and sealed in a plastic bag.

Highly versatile, eggplant lends itself to a wide variety of preparations: smoking, broiling, frying, mashing into “poor man’s caviar,” sautéing, roasting, and grilling until its skin blisters and its insides turn creamy and sweet like butter. It is the workhorse of the summer kitchen in Mediterranean cuisines and the star of many famous dishes: moussaka, baba ganoush, ratatouille, caponata, Provençal caviar, and eggplant parmigiana. The Turks claim to have 1,000 recipes, 40 of which they prepare regularly. Its dense, creamy flesh is especially welcome in the vegetarian kitchen, satisfying in the same way that a meaty portabella mushroom does. Italians call it “poor man’s meat.”

Eggplant has an elusive flavor that almost tastes more of the sea than the earth. Because it’s so adaptable, it is easy to miss that singular quality. Try it with olive, sesame, and peanut oils. Or yogurt, cream, and cheese—parmesan, ricotta, goat cheese, feta, Gruyère. Tahini, garlic, basil, peanuts, pine nuts, ginger, soy, cilantro, and saffron all make good partners, along with lemon, balsamic, and red wine vinegar. Chickpeas, peppers, onions, zucchini, and summer squashes are frequent companions, along with potatoes and tomatoes, eggplant’s cousins from the nightshade family. The Turks were right—the combinations are endless.

My niece called the other day to tell me she’d tried eggplant New Jersey-style, on a pizza. She didn’t like it. Even if she doesn’t find another way to love eggplant, there’s always Ratatouille and popcorn.

Recipes for Ratatouille and Aubergine Cake