Monday, January 13, 2014

Eggplant "one way" -- Mad Men -- old Saxon army encampments --

 It really was, no kidding.

Celebrate, dear things! It's my 500th -- five hundredth -- post.  No kidding.

Today's retro recipe comes from Libby Hillman's Lessons in Gourmet Cooking, published by Hearthside Press, New York, in 1963. Before Mrs. Hillman gives us her serious and detailed Eggplant Florentine, she offers two very briefly summarized aubergine dishes, each disposed of in a few sentences and both together simply called "Eggplant Two Ways." This is the second Way. Verbatim, p. 149:
Bake eggplant, cut in cubes, with layers of tomatoes (canned) and onion, seasoned with salt, pepper, basil, and cheese. Top with buttered bread crumbs.
Deal with that, if you will, O néophyte. But don't worry. There's not too much you can do to wreck a cubed eggplant. To these brief instructions I can contribute the details that I sautéed the onions in olive oil and butter first, and that I added black olives to the dish before baking. My oven temperature was 350 F, and my baking time, about an hour. A sprinkling of grated cheese atop the buttered bread crumbs would certainly not be amiss.

And who in the world was Libby Hellman? Both the editor's preface to her cookbook in 1963, and her obituary in the New York Times in 2002 -- heart attack, aged 82 -- say about the same thing. (A rather sobering comment on what can be the simplicity of life.) She taught cooking for adults, via the Great Neck Public School system, for twenty-nine years; Lessons in Gourmet Cooking says "she has taught for ten years," so since we're bright about these things and can subtract simple sums too, we can reason she must have started in 1953. "The whole series of five classes," when she was in her prime, cost sixty dollars. Only men were permitted to register for the barbecue class.

Was it an expensive proposition, do you think, to learn cooking with Libby Hillman in the early 1960s?  Over on a blog called Basket of Kisses ("Smart Discussion about Smart Television"), a commenter responding to a post about the paychecks in Mad Men testifies to her salary as a Manhattan editorial assistant in 1962. She earned, she says, about sixty dollars a week. So -- we're bright about these things -- if she had wanted to treat herself to Libby Hellman's cooking course, it would have meant the setting aside of a week's pay. Probably she would have sent her husband or some other man to the barbecue class.  

And now what of our eggplant, or as the French and English call it, our aubergine? The Oxford Companion to Food delights in tracing the origins of both the fruit (it is one, botanically) and its name. Solanum melongena, like so many foodstuffs, seems to have come first from India, whence it was taken to China and then to the Near East, and from there, via both Italian-Arab trade and the Muslim conquest of medieval Spain, to Europe. Europeans brought it to the Americas, where we have insisted on calling it eggplant even though, as the author of the Oxford Companion points out, it looks not the least egg-like but rather "like a purple truncheon." The name aubergine, he says (quoting "Leclerc 1927,")* derives from the Spanish albadingena, which in turn derives from the Arabic albadingen, via the Persian badingen, via the Sanskrit vatin gana. He does not  tell us what the Sanskrit vatin gana might have meant. Perhaps it was purple truncheon. Strangely, the Provencal language's "corruption" of albadingen, meringeane -- a bit of a reach, even for a corruption -- led to a different French name for the eggplant, melongene, incorporated into its species name (Solanum melongena, above). Perhaps people in Provence needed a very different-sounding word for the new purple fruit, since their own word alberga, like the modern French auberge, already meant "inn" -- "compare the Old Saxon heriberga, meaning 'army shelter.' "

Ancient speakers of Latin, it seems, did even better. To them the egg- or truncheon-shaped, green, purple, or white thing in all its various sizes was the mala insana, the apple of madness, which explains why the eggplant is also called in modern Italian melanzana, and in modern Greek, melitzana. Both of which sound a lot like the Provencal melongene anyway ... perhaps we are best off to stick with our own  eggplant. At least it avoids all this etymological fuss. If you wish to label the thing also "eggfruit," as in Australia, or "garden egg," as West Africans do, I won't stop you.

*Henri Leclerc's Les Légumes de France, Paris, 1927


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