Thursday, July 29, 2010
An Eggplant Fairy Tale
Last week, I promised to bring you a fairytale about eggplant. If this narrative is to bear any resemblance to a real fairy tale, I suppose it’s proper to begin with the familiar “once upon a time” device. So here we go. Once upon a time, there was an Italian girl who didn’t like eggplant. Not that she really remembers trying it, although she can recall harboring a vague disinterest in the deep purple vegetable and recollects a penchant for laying low when her mother began slicing, breading, and frying it as a “special treat” for her father.
That girl, of course, is me. But I’m older now, and wiser, and not much prone to low-laying these days. What’s more, I’ve become increasingly cautious of blind acceptance of “the way things are,” a wariness that has led me to question not only the reasons behind my stated tastes, but the status quo that causes most of us not to question what is put before us, say--for the case of this narrative--in the sterile, well-lit aisles of our local grocery chains.
My friend, Lori, recently introduced me to the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver—gave me my own copy, in fact. Within the covers of the book (which we’ll reference henceforth as A,V,M for brevity) I have found many reasons to regard with suspicion a goodly portion of the boxes, cartons, and even produce found at the average grocery store.
There’s been much talk of late about the High Fructose Corn Syrup Scandal—the one wherein the government is subsidizing farmers to grow so much corn that the food industry has volunteered us all to do our part to consume it—to the tune of 700 extra calories per person, per day, quietly folded into our cereals, crackers, condiments, and convenience foods (pg. 24 A,V,M) .
What’s less frequently discussed is the state of the produce on the store’s periphery—you know, the section in which those of us who are already on to the perils of boxed and bagged commodities typically feel pretty good about loading up the cart. Turns out, unless you live in the blessed state of California where I have only found there to be genuine, wholesome, fresh bounty at any time of the year—the fruits and veggies we’re labeling “fresh” simply by virtue of the fact that we’re not spooning them from a can-- are nothing more than shadows of their ideal selves. According to Kingsolver, a large percentage of these beleaguered legumes, berries, melons, and other assorted spheres were bred for qualities rendering them capable of sustaining long stints on the open road—and none of these qualities have anything to do with taste.
Good thing we’re still working within the structure of a fairy tale. The way I figure, that practically guarantees us entrance into an enchanted kingdom of wonder—and, as luck would have, Kingsolver handed over the key. I go there every Saturday, and, if my schedule allows, Wednesday mornings, too. As a result, most of my summer grocery money has been spent in places that look like this:
Where I buy food that looks like this:
Chances are, this kingdom stretches into your neck of the woods, too. If you don't know the way already, I encourage you to take a moment to see if you have a farmer's market near you.
See, we’ve been hoodwinked, plain and simple. Conditioned to believe that carrots are orange. Tomatoes are red. Cucumbers and long and green. But the truth? That little yellow sphere up there is just as much cucumber as its counterparts who resemble Larry of Veggie Tales fame. And, according to my nephew, it’s much sweeter, too. Who knew that there used to be over 4,000 kinds of potatoes, in a rainbow of colors and a cornucopia of flavors and textures…and now, even in the Potato Powerhouse that is Peru, only a couple dozen are commonly grown. I certainly didn’t, until I hit page 49 of A,V,M.
And let’s pause for a moment on the issue of flavor. My son, who, left to his own devices, would wash down boxes of chips and crackers with a fifth of Mountain Dew and call it a balanced diet—he’s been shoveling in green beans like they’re processed fodder. Just yesterday, he bought his own personal watermelon, and was spotted yesterday afternoon happily chomping on some butternut squash bread—butternut squash!
I also learned that the minerals and properties present in a region’s soil produce flavors distinctive to that locality. Apparently if you have a discriminating palette and spend enough time sampling regional fare it is possible to become familiar undertones of flavor unique to an individual region; to be able to identify what’s known as a local terrior.
So one day while walking through the Enchanted Kingdom, I couldn’t resist a timid foray into culinary bravery by picking up a modest five of these beautiful little eggplants. The dollar or two it cost me would have been well spent on the experience of just looking at them. But the farmer who sold them to me encouraged me to drizzle them in olive oil with a little bit of salt and pepper and throw them on the grill.
So I did. The first bite was sheer bliss. The taste reminded me of baked pasta. I couldn’t believe my palette. Was this what I’d been missing my whole life? I was almost afraid to try the next bite—this was too good to be true. The next bite was better than the first—I imagined an entire casserole slathered in fresh tomatoes and emerging, piping hot from my oven.
I immediately wanted more. I stopped by a small market owned by one of the vendors who frequents the Saturday market, and was told that eggplant matching the description I supplied would be off the vine in a day or two—in fact, that they’d set aside a bag for me, if I’d tell them how many I’d like. I thought 15, but settled on 10 when the farmer seemed alarmed.
For two days, I pined for eggplant like a princess yearns for prince charming. I was so eager to taste that fresh goodness I ordered a dish of eggplant Parmesan at a local eatery, and was horrified to receive a seed-filled plate of mush that became the villain of this fairy tale when it left me with a stomach ache.
So it was with trepidation that I received a bag with ten—count ‘em—ten! eggplants, each about three times the size of the little ones who had left me so enchanted. My Second Son and partner in local, organic eating experiments, disparaged the Mushy-Eggplant-Serving establishment and encouraged a positive outlook. Gamely, we sliced five of the ten fruits and gave them the same olive oil treatment, but were disheartened to watch them wax instantly brown, and note an alarming number of seeds in place of the creamy white flesh of the Prior ‘Plant.
Four of the eight people gathered around the table braved the eggplant that evening, and all sported grim flat lines from ear to ear. What appeared on our plates was an undercooked version of the overcooked mush I’d encountered the week before. And, Post ‘Plant, my stomach didn’t feel so hot, either.
Dreams of baked eggplant bliss dissolved. My sister seemed skeptical that the entire experience ever even transpired. Until she spied the miniature lavender beauties next market day.
“We have to get them,” she said. “We need to lay this all to rest, once and for all.”
“I don’t know…I just don’t think…” my voice trailed.
“Back for more?” the farmer queried. ‘I told you you’d like them, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but,” I stammered, laying out the whole tale.
“Of course you didn’t like the other eggplant!” he laughed heartily. “These eggplant aren’t like other eggplant,” he said.
“Well, what kind are they?”
“These are Fairy Tale eggplant,” he explained.
Of course. Fairy Tale eggplant. It made sense.
Tempering our hope, we tossed five in our reusable mesh produce bags (you DO use mesh produce bags, don’t you? I was fortunate enough to win a set from Erin…and I love them!) and hoped for the best.
Second Son was manning the grill that night. We decided against putting all our eggplant in one basket and grilled up lots of veggies in which we were confident, as well. As fate would have, there was a lot going on, grill wise, that night and the eggplant was a bit…soft.
I reluctantly took a bite…and smiled. “The baked pasta—it’s back!:
My sister’s fork went to her mouth. She paused, and brightened, “I tasted the baked pasta,” she said.
And if this were a proper fairy tale, we’d end right here with a good old happily ever after. But alas, subsequent samples revealed that the texture suffered from the extended cook time. And suddenly we all decided that we’re done with eggplant. For now. When we’re ready, we’ll take my niece’s suggestion and try it as an add-in feature in another dish….but I’m afraid it’s a simple “the end” for this season.