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Eggplant Encounters

By Billy Ward II
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Do you remember your first eggplant encounter? Perhaps the deep purple fruit grabbed your attention alongside the familiar tomato, peppers, and potatoes displayed at a farmer’s market booth. I remember mine. “What is it, and what do you with it?” I asked. Their terse reply, “you eat it,” left a bitter taste in my mouth. I kept walking but wondered what I was missing. Eggplant is noticeably absent in both the literature of traditional Appalachian foodways and most Johnson County tables, but it has a long history in American cuisine dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Closer to home, participants in the Grow JoCo Kids
Program are growing and will be eating eggplant this
Referred to as the “King of Vegetables” in India, eggplant was cultivated and prized as food and medicinal qualities in China and India for thousands of years. However, Europeans during the Middle Ages were not impressed. Bestowing upon it the unappealing name of mala insana, translated as mad apple or bad egg, they gave it a wide berth. A nightshade family member that includes tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, jimson weed, and belladonna, the fruit was considered as dangerous as the truly toxic leaves. Tomatoes endured a similar misunderstanding, but it took longer before adventurous eaters realized eggplant fruit was a safe and welcome addition to their diet. And while the dark purple fruit we think of does not resemble eggs, early British herbalists and explorers described the varieties they saw as egg-like in color, size, and shape.
A couple hundred years and a new continent later, popular history claims Thomas Jefferson introduced eggplant to the United States. Statesman, scientist, farmer, and avid gardener, Jefferson loved plants and translated early America’s cultural diversity into his garden, growing and dining on vegetables worldwide. Jefferson grew both white and purple eggplant at Monticello as early as 1812. In 1824 Jefferson’s relative Mary Randolph published a cookbook complete with a fried eggplant recipe, and by 1825 multiple seed catalogs were offering purple and white varieties.
Eggplant continues its slow creep into the mainstream, bolstered by growth in Asian cuisine, but U.S. consumption is less than one pound per person annually. Until you develop a taste for it and have a few reliable recipes, two plants are enough and should produce two or more pounds of fruit over the season. They like it hot, requiring 8-10 hours of sunlight, and may need staking for support. Space plants 18 inches apart or individually in 4-5-gallon containers for unique deck decoration.
Mulching conserves soil moisture and reduces weed competition. Harvest before full maturity when fruits feel slightly firm with glossy skin.