From the Plantae Kingdom
by Robert Booz
Eggplant: long, deep purple, and crowned in a neat green cap, sometimes fuzzy, just short of prickly. This is the eggplant of the American green grocer and supermarket. This is the eggplant I grew up eating breaded and fried in eggplant parmesan, sliced and grilled during the summertime, or baked with cheese and red sauce in eggplant rollatini. But beyond these classics, the eggplant family has so much more to offer.
Like its wildly popular nightshade kin, the tomato, eggplant comes in countless varieties of colors, shapes, and sizes. In no place is this truer than throughout India and Asia. Unlike tomatoes, which find their roots in the bottom reaches of South America, eggplants are native to the Indian subcontinent. It’s there, and throughout the rest of Asia, that you can find varieties as small as a pinky finger or as large as a soccer ball, and in colors from white to green to purple and everything in between.
It’s ironic that we call them eggplants, a name derived from egg-shaped, whitish-yellow fruits once popular in 18th century Europe. A more accurate name might be the French aubergine, which also means a dark purple color. Perhaps we should use brinjal, the Indian name for the fruit, which in turn is of Portuguese origin.
It should not go unnoticed that Indians, the very first cultivators of eggplants, use a word of Portuguese origin for their fruit. The eggplant has long benefited from global trade and transportation. Europe itself received the eggplant sometime in the early Middle Ages from the Arab world, that in turn received it from Asia, and the fruit figures heavily in the cuisine of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia, from ratatouille to baba ghanoush to Indian and Thai curries.
On Martha’s Vineyard you can get your eggplants not from Indian traders or Arab invaders, but from one of the many farms that grow them, and in a selection of varieties much more diverse than those found at a supermarket. Simon Athearn of Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown reports that this year the farm has about five varieties in cultivation, including a white variety called “Clara,” an “oriental” variety, one called “Little Fingers” (you can probably guess where that name comes from), and of course the “Classic,” a variety guaranteed to appear year after year at Morning Glory because of its dependable great taste and texture. Whichever eggplant you choose at Morning Glory Farm, they all comes from a quarter acre of land on the farm. While this may not seem like a lot of land, Simon assures me that no matter how much eggplant the farm sells to customers, there is always a bounty left over. So get to cooking those eggplants, long and purple or whatever else, it’s eggplant season on the Vineyard.