In the Ozarks when I was a kid, we never grew eggplant and I don’t remember anyone else there who did, either. I’ve tried growing it a few times and I’ve tried many different varieties but have never had much luck because of flea beetles. You go out to the garden one day and the eggplants that looked healthy suddenly look like someone took a shotgun to them, and even if you spray at that point, they seldom produce much. The only reason I might try eggplant now is that for 22 years I was married to a woman from Thailand who was a very good cook and knew lots about eggplant.
The eggplants or aubergine you can buy in most groceries in this country are crap. Even the long Asian types you find at inflated prices are nearly always crap. The primary warning sign isn’t visible until you cut them open, but if you see dark seeds then you know you’ve made a mistake. Eggplant should be harvested before the seeds mature, and in this country it never is. Almost nobody knows good eggplant here, and fruits with mature seeds weigh more so the grower and the retail outlet both make more money on mature fruits.
Here in the U.S., no one expects anything else, and our recipes for eggplant are based upon eggplant as a kind of plastic understructure for other things we do like to eat. Eggplant parmesan, for example, uses eggplant as a lattice to hold other things we actually enjoy. The proof of this came to me when I worked for Olive Gardens, where one of my many jobs was to bread the eggplant for eggplant parm, one of the restaurant’s “big seller” appetizers. I worked for a new store, and suppliers were still testing our standards because they always need places to send the garbage. We began receiving shipments of eggplant (and other veggies) that were rotting when we got them, and it got worse and worse until we had nothing to serve but eggplant far past its last usable moment. When you see brown streaks on the skin of a purple eggplant, you know something is wrong, and when if you slice it, it collapses and leaves a puddle of juice behind, it’s way past rotten. Brown flesh inside that flattens when you lay down the slice, well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist chef to know something is wrong.
After expecting for several weeks that someone in charge would notice, I finally brought this to the attention of the store manager and suggested that at least for tonight we should pull eggplant parm off the menu, since everything I had to work with was rotten. He looked seriously panicked and told me to prep it anyway. We served eggplant parm with breading and milk and eggs and salt and spices and parmesan cheese, built upon slices of rotten eggplant. The saddest thing was that none of the customers noticed. That’s the quality of eggplant we work with in this country. At best it’s something you don’t notice. I did manage to improve the quality of our product at that OG, because suddenly overseeing the arrival of produce was my job and I could send back anything that didn’t meet my standards, while the store manager whose job it really was to do that, spent his valuable time up front flirting with waitresses. Classify that as water under the bridge. If you work for somebody, never bring up real problems because no one actually wants to know.
In Southeast Asia or China, where people know what to do with eggplant, you get a wide variety of choices at the local markets. Eggplants in many colors, shapes and sizes and flavors, and if you try to sell any that have brown seeds inside them, your customers go somewhere else next time. There are more varieties of eggplants at a Thai country market than we have of chili peppers. My ex would look at aubergine in the groceries here and say, “Too old! Why anybody buy?” She was right. But here, that’s what you get. We have two choices, long and round. I found a way to use either recently that isn’t so bad.
Clapshot, an old Scottish dish of mashed potatoes and turnips, blends well with the sort of eggplant we are sold. I don’t personally like clapshot as mash, and there are some debatable points in the recipes I see online, but roughly if you use a blend of 30-30-30 eggplant, potato and turnip it comes out pretty good. I simmer these ingredients in a covered saute pan with a cup of water until cooked thoroughly, and then add spices and salt and butter to taste, cooking in an open pan until the dish steams dry enough to brown on the bottom. Pretty good stuff! and you don’t notice the eggplant so much.
The catch here is that clapshot isn’t meant to use the kind of turnip we think of as turnip. Classic purple-top turnip is the American version, and it does grow well here. I prefer Tokyo Market Turnip
because it’s so sweet and juicy you can eat it like an apple and be just as happy as if you did. Tokyo Market grows faster than purple top, but it also attracts pests that shun Purple Top. This spring I lost half my crop to peelings full of nematode tunnels, and a Purple Top that came up by accident was untouched. I agree with the nematodes, Tokyo Market is far better. I’ll try again this fall, because turnips do lots better in the fall garden. In the traditional Scottish recipes, clapshot called for potatoes and swedes, a type of Rutabaga that doesn’t grow well in this climate, and I’m sure that clapshot with swedes included would be much better than anything using Purple Top. My version using Tokyo Market was pretty darn good. In a survival garden, I’d go with purple top mostly, even though by the end of the winter I wouldn’t be able to eat any. You can only eat so many turnips, then you die.
Reminds me of a story. Back in the 70′s some Peace Corps volunteers went to Saharan Africa to teach people better ways of living, never mind that those Saharan people had been living there successfully for thousands of years and the volunteers were rich kids from good homes in Pennsylvania and New York. Americans always have lots to tell people about how they should do things. The volunteers brought seeds of many different new vegetables they encouraged the locals to grow, and of course most of those things didn’t grow because it was the Saharan Desert, fer chrissake. One thing that did very well was eggplant, and I suppose it was because there weren’t any flea beetles there. The locals invented a new name for it, which the Peace Corps people eventually interpreted as “the bitter purple thing.” Someday there should be a Peace Corps where volunteers from the U.S. go to other countries to learn better ways of living. It only makes good sense.
Just take a vacation to Bangkok and eat street food, you’ll know what I mean about eggplant.