Ode to Eggplant: Paean to a Mysterious Black Fruit

Friday was “allowance” day when I was growing up. Allowance in my case being the equivalent of payday for a privileged white girl who got financially rewarded for occasionally making her own bed or clearing away the dishes after the evening meal. Not a bad gig, if you could get it. Once I hit adolescence, Fridays also meant dinner with my father and a trip to the record store, a scheme no doubt hatched by my mother, who had been taking Transactional Analysis courses and reading books like I’m Okay, You’re Okay, On Becoming a Person, and The Feminine Mystique.

Amazingly, for a kid who worshipped music as much as life itself, I looked forward to dinner as much as shopping for the longed for 45s afterward. I wish I could say it was the special father-daughter time I was in so much anticipation of—I’d give anything to have a few more hours with the old man now that he’s gone—but it wasn’t. The conversation between us was typically forced and awkward. I’d ask him about his tennis game or “the office” and he’d buzz me about my classes or whatever art project I was flirting with that week. What I really longed for on those nights was menu item number 9, Eggplant Parmigiana. It was love at first bite and sight.

Otherwise known as Eggplant Parmesan, Eggplant Parmigiana can often be a conglomeration of batter-dipped, deep-fried sliced eggplant, baked with enough cheese, spices, and tomato sauce that the main attraction is completely unrecognizable. Luckily, the Parmigiana I first encountered was nothing like the doughy, fat-drenched imposters that often pass for the real deal. Number 9 at The Park Road SteakHouse was served exactly like its little picture on the menu—tender, thick slices of Black Beauty eggplant (the common, large purple variety), coated with a light dusting of bread crumbs, slowly baked (not fried) and layered between moderate amounts of cheese and garlic-rich sauce with plenty of fresh Parmesan, parsley, and olives on top. The subtle, musky flavor of the fruit (like its seed-bearing cousin, the tomato, eggplant is indeed a fruit) was not only detectable but pronounced. Like many objects of desire, part of the allure of what the French call “aubergine” was and still is its mystery.

So as the years passed I became more and more obsessed by what Linneaus dubbed solanum melogena and its mysterious origins. Even the etiology of that name is disputed. Some claim it is derived from the Arabian term for the plant, others claim melogena means eggplant in Sanskrit. I prefer the theory that it is derived from the Italian melazana, which translates as “mad apple.” Food lore holds that this interpretation isespecially appropriate because at one time eating eggplant was believed to cause insanity. It is also rumored the plant was formerly known as “raging apple” and “love apple.” In his book Nightshades: the Paradoxical Plants, Charles Hesier, Jr., says he does not know about the claims that eggplant causes insanity or can be used as a “love potion,” but acknowledges that “everyone knows that love and insanity are close dallied.” This might explain my experience of love at first bite and subsequent obsession.

In the early 90s, I went so far as to produce a video about eggplant as a burgeoning cultural icon—interviewing artists, craftspersons, grocers, anthropologists, late-night shoppers, chefs, and random pedestrians about their feelings and thoughts on the “mad apple.” One of my fondest discoveries was learning of a video game whose ultimate prize, after hours of exhaustive play, was “a showering of eggplant raining down like manna from heaven,” according to the interviewee. I found a woman who was building eggplant-shaped furniture for a client and another who had a mighty impressive collection of melazana-related paraphernalia.

Then an odd thing happened toward the end of the shoot, which in retrospect is proof of the idea that “the past keeps telling us what the future is about.” I was hiking at dawn in the winter’s first snow in Iowa City’s Oakland Cemetery and came upon the infamous black angel. Somehow, someone had gotten there before me and placed three plump black beauties at her feet. I could find no noticeable footprints or tracks and I had the feeling the fruit had been left there as an offering of some kind. The videographer in me yelled “RUN HOME AND GRAB YOUR CAMERA!” but I couldn’t do it. There was another voice in me not nearly as loud but more persuasive and commanding. It said, “Be still and enjoy this moment for what it is,” that what I was experiencing was sacred and too important to be co-opted into my latest art project.

And, of course, it was. I mean, I was standing on a gravesite with a miraculously appearing collection of something I was obsessed by (thanks to my responsible father), yet the universe was telling me to be happy with what was in front of me right then, to let go. I even had an angel standing over me with her wing extended, ready to wrap me in what singer-songwriter John Hiatt calls “her warmest coat.”