Tuesday, January 21, 2014

E is for Eggplant (a.k.a. Aubergine)

                               Some have meat and cannot eat, 
                               Some can not eat that want it: 
                               But we have meat and we can eat, 
                               Sae let the Lord be thankit.
                                              —Selkirk Grace, ascribed to Robert Burns

Every year around this time, I keep thinking of a real Mediterranean dinner — not a quick fill of pizza or pasta, but something substantial. Ideally, it should contain eggplant (known in the United Kingdom and some other English-speaking countries as “aubergine”). I don’t say this because I dislike winter weather; indeed, I prefer a bracing climate. It’s an issue of cuisine. Unfortunately for me, the weather in Canada or the northern US in January —especially this year, which has been unseasonably cold— is much like what the Scots expect on Robbie Burns Day. The traditional foods of that occasion suit the weather, but they don’t suit my fantasies.

In my ideal world I will prepare an eggplant dish for my family and friends in the dead of winter, and they will be enthralled. In reality, I keep hoping in vain for a Damascene conversion from family members on the subject of eggplant. After nearly thirty years of trying eggplant recipes, the fact remains that only one of my relatives truly enjoys the vegetable, and I don’t see her nearly as often as I would like.

At this point in my meditations I start thinking of how eggplant is an ideal Quaker potluck dish. In a large Meeting that would be true, but I am not dealing with a large Meeting. The last large Meeting I was connected with is several hours away. In a small Meeting, as in a small family, food needs to meet the needs of a critical mass of people. Eggplant can be problematical in that regard. It is not only an acquired taste for people who have grown up with certain cuisines, but it is also a vegetable that cannot easily be enjoyed on its own. Combining the eggplant with those other necessary ingredients, we all too often run afoul of food allergies or other restrictions.

Here I confess to being one of the major culprits: although I am fortunate not to have any known food allergies, I am a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, which means that I consume eggs and dairy but not “red” meat, poultry, fish, or seafood. For instance, the moussaka I eat is the vegetarian variety, which might be as appealing to some as vegetarian haggis. (Actually, the thought of vegetarian haggis is about as appealing to me as Tofurkey for Thanksgiving — but I digress.) Getting back to the matter of taking eggplant to the Meeting House, it seems to be just too time-consuming a gamble. Quakers aren’t supposed to gamble.

It has always been easier to be “the dessert lady” with the flourless chocolate cake made with canola oil and a trace of orange juice.

Taking dessert and not eggplant to potluck means that either I or someone else needs to provide something resembling a main course. It also implies that we have money to spare, and there’s the rub. Many of us, including yours truly, could use some reminding. That was the goal in one of those large Meetings I sojourned at some years ago, in which we had monthly “austerity meals” to benefit the American Friends Service Committee. The meal consisted of two soups— a vegetarian soup and one with a minimal amount of meat, typically stock or leftovers— some bread, and perhaps a bit of cheese. Since the bread and soups were made from scratch in someone’s pleasant kitchen (Friends signed up in advance), and the cheese was from one of the continent’s premier dairy regions, the lunches hardly qualified as being austere, although the basic nature of the ingredients explained why the meals got their name.  Upon reflection, however, the meals were austere because the coffee and tea (and juice for the kids) were distinctly second-tier .... And... There... Was... No... Dessert...

Sadly, for all too many people, even the aforementioned austerity meal is beyond their skill level or budgets — or both. The United States has the highest poverty rate of major OECD countries, and Canada has little to brag about in that regard. It is shameful for any wealthy country to treat people that way. This is especially true of children — but it is true for anyone. The right to be able to eat is a human right and cannot be waved away with the word “deserving.”

This is, indeed, a right, and one that is hard won. There is no guarantee that in a world of increasing economic disparities and climate disruptions we will not return to the spot of the regular famines the world knew in previous generations— or even worse. All of us, as members of the human family, have much to be concerned about. If we have the education, the money, and the opportunity to think about our long-term food supply, then we have the obligation to do so. In the interim, let us take to heart the words of the Selkirk Grace, where the “meat” of the Lowlands Scots language is a synecdoche for all kinds of food, and say, “Sae let the Lord be thankit.
An eggplant dish which I made in the style of a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi

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