The poem selected for this month’s cooked poem is from Erica Jong’s Half-Lives, and is a poem devoted entirely to one of my favorite ingredients, the eggplant.She has many poems about food in fact, and this morning I had a difficult time picking which one I wanted to use. She has one about borscht, one on carrots, and one on Chinese food. Her first published volume of poetry is actually titled Fruits and Vegetables, and has, not surprisingly, poems all about onions, avocados, artichokes, and rice.
This morning I vacillated for a long time between her poems “Chinese Food” and “The Eggplant Epithalamion.” Eggplants are out of season I thought , and I should wait until August when their round little bodies have ripened in the garden, along with the tomatoes, parsley, and basil. But when I thought about making pork filled won tons, on such a beautiful spring day, I realized that I should make what I want to eat. Baked, garlicky eggplant just seemed so much more appealing, and so “The Eggplant Epithalamion” won.
The Eggplant Epithalamion
“Mostly you eat eggplant at least once a day,” she explained. “A Turk won’t marry a woman unless she can cook eggplant at least a hundred ways.”
-Archaeologist Iris Love, speaking of the cuisine on digs in Turkey. The New York Times, February 4, 1971
There are more than a hundred Turkish poems
I would like to give you all of them.
If you scoop out every seed,
you can read me backward
like an Arabic book.
(Lament in Aubergine)
& as shiny as if freshly laid-
You are a melancholy fruit.
Every animal is sad
(Byzantine Eggplant Fable)
Once upon a time on the coast of Turkey
there live a woman who could cook eggplant 99 ways.
She could slice eggplant thin as paper.
She could write poems on it & batter-fry it.
She could bake eggplant & broil it.
She could even roll the seeds in banana-
flavored cigarette papers
& get her husband high on eggplant.
But he was not pleased.
He went to her father & demanded his bride-price back.
He said he’d been cheated.
He wanted back two goats, twelve chickens
& a camel as reparation.
His wife wept & wept.
Her father raved.
The next day she gave birth to an eggplant.
It was premature & green
& she had to sit on it for days
before it hatched.
“This is my hundredth eggplant recipe,” she screamed.
“I hope you’re satisfied!”
(Thank Allah that the eggplant was a boy.)
(Love & the Eggplant)
On the warm coast of Turkey, Miss Love
“at least once a day.”
How fitting that love should eat eggplant,
That most aphrodisiac fruit.
Fruit of the womb
Of Asia Minor,
reminiscent of eggs,
of Istanbul’s deep purple nights
& the Byzantine eyes of Christ.
I remember the borders of egg & dart
fencing us off from the flowers & fruit
I remember the egg & the tongue
probing the lost scrolls of love.
I remember the ancient faces
hidden by dust
in the labyrinth under
the British Museum
to be finally found by Miss Love
near Great Russell Square.
I think of the hundreds of poems of the eggplant
& my friends who have fallen in love
over an eggplant,
who have opened the eggplant together,
who have swum in its seeds,
who have clung in the egg of the eggplant
& have rocked to sleep
in love’s dark purple boat.
For a long time I steered away from cooking eggplant because how to prepare it always seemed to elude me. It wasn’t until the last time I was in Italy with my grandmother that I started to cook it and realized that eggplants are not as intimidating as I had thought. I would buy the little eggplants at the market and when my grandmother would get up from her afternoon nap she would slice them and salt them and leave them to rest under a dishtowel on the kitchen counter for me. Often I would just grill them on the stove top with some olive oil, and we would eat them for dinner sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley, more olive oil, and salt and pepper. Once, I prepared them this same way and then topped them with leftover Bolognese sauce, which was delicious since the eggplant’s meaty flesh can stand up so well to the heavy tomato sauce.
But since Jong’s poem is all about Turkish eggplants, I thought I should try to make something less familiar. And since Turkish women are supposed to be able to cook eggplant 100 different ways, I figured I should make more than just one eggplant dish. So I made two. As the eggplants baked away in the oven this afternoon, my apartment was filled with their earthy, moody scent.
Both of these dishes were simple and relatively easy to make. The Turkish Eggplant Salad is surprisingly light and airy, and tastes delicious sandwiched between a piece of pita bread. I chopped up the eggplant into chunks, but I think it would also work to puree the whole thing in the food processor and make it more into a spread. The baked eggplant recipe came from a North African cookbook, and the filling is wonderfully flavorful and satisfying.
Turkish Eggplant Salad with Garlic and Yogurt from Fay Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook2 medium eggplants (total 2 to 2 1/2 pounds)
2 or 3 medium garlic cloves, finely minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
5 to 6 tablespoons plain yogurt
salt and freshly ground pepper
cayenne pepper to taste
Cut the eggplants in half and prick several times with a fork. Bake at 400 F for about 1 hour. When done, eggplant’s flesh should be tender and eggplant should look collapsed. Remove eggplant peel, cut off stem, and drain off any liquid from inside eggplant. Chop flesh into cubes with a knife.Transfer eggplant to a bowl. Add garlic and mix well. Stir in olive oil, lemon juice and yogurt. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper; season generously. (Salad can be kept, covered, 2 days in refrigerator.)
Aubergines Farcies (Baked Stuffed Eggplant) from Kitty Morse’s The Vegetarian Table: North Africa
2 medium eggplants
3 tbs. olive oil, plus olive oil for drizzling
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 c. dried bread crumbs
1/3 c. Parmesan cheese, grated
Handful of parsley, minced
8 basil leaves, chopped
1 tsp. harisa or red chili paste
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the broiler. Trim the stems from the eggplants and cut in half length wise. With a sharp knife, remove the flesh, leaving a 1/4 –inch-thick shell. Chop the eggplant flesh and set aside.
Brush the inside shells with olive oil and place in an oven proof dish. Broil them until they turn light brown, 4-5 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a skillet, heat a couple tbs. of the olive oil and cook the onion, until tender 6-8 minutes. Coarsely chop two of the tomatoes and add to the onion. Add the eggplant, reduce heat, and cook until the eggplant is tender, covered, 8-10 minutes.
Transfer the eggplant mixture to a bowl and mix with the garlic, bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, basil, harisa (or chili paste), salt and pepper. Fill the shells with this mixture. Slice the remaining tomatoes and arrange them on top of the eggplant. Drizzle with olive oil and bake until lightly browned, 25-30 minutes. Serve immediately and enjoy!