When I was growing up, my fathers friend, Richard
Pastecki, grew lots of eggplant. He did not eat them
grilled or in salads, and it would never have occurred
to him to use them in something as unfamiliar as ratatouille.
Richard Pastecki raised eggplant for only one reasonEggplant
In the Pastecki household Eggplant Parmesan was taken
very seriously. Richards wife, Rose, who worked
full time while raising the couples three children,
spent days on the dish, slicing the eggplant, salting
it, and stacking it between layers of paper toweling.
After all the preliminaries were over, she would layer
the vegetable with homemade tomato sauce and Parmesan
cheese and bake it. The recipe produced enough to feed
an army immediately, plus a large amount to freeze for
later. I think it is safe to say that the Pasteckis
raised everything that went into their Eggplant Parmesan
except the cow that produced the milk for the cheese.
The Pasteckis grew eggplant (and tomatoes, garlic,
basil, cardoons and a lot of other vegetables) because
they believed that there was no substitute for fresh
produce. They used vegetables in such quantities that
they may also have saved a little money, but taste was
always the prime consideration.
Seed and plant merchandisers say that there has been
a decline in home vegetable gardening over the course
of the last century. Certainly the supermarkets now
carry a variety of fruits and vegetables that would
have been unimaginable seventy-five or even fifty years
ago. The problem is that much of that produce tastes
less like homegrown carrots or cabbages or green peppers
and more like the Styrofoam display trays that cradle
The answer to the taste dilemma is at the local farmers
market (if you have one), or, better still, in your
own backyard. My unscientific research shows that while
fewer people may have big comprehensive vegetable gardens,
lots of people take the trouble to grow a few special
things that they really like.
Many people in my town, for example, grow tomatoes.
I know one woman who grows the tiny grape variety in
pots on her deck so that guests can pick and eat them
as hors doeuvres during the summer. Then there
is the mother of three who decorates her sunny terrace
with generous pots of basil. More than one house on
my block has an apple or pear tree on the premises,
and more than one family actually eats the fruit that
comes from those trees.
A few weeks ago I interviewed a champion community
gardener from a nearby urban area who not only fills
her community garden spaces with vegetables, but borrows
a neighbors yard and cultivates a strip in back
of her apartment building as well. This passionate gardener
is not growing prize dahlias or sunflowers, she is growing
a huge harvest of produce, especially tomatoes, which
she turns into sauce and salsa for the winter months.
My research also turned up a local clergyman who is
passionate about the rhubarb he grows in his backyard,
and equally passionate about the pies he makes with
the fresh stalks. At least one councilman in my town
has grown his own sweet corn, and another is justifiably
proud of her peach trees. Whats more, I know for
certain that a member of the local preservation committee
has a raised bed full of good things in back of his
house. My neighbor has blackberries, and one of the
pillars of the community used to have red raspberry
canes out by the back fence. If you know where to look
in this town, you could even find one or two upright
citizens with fig trees. People who think the suburbs
are simply hotbeds of various kinds of perversity have
it only partly right. We take time out from all that
to grow our own fresh vegetables.
I dont think that I could emulate Richard and
Rose Pastecki and dedicate a significant portion of
my life to Eggplant Parmesan, but I am certainly going
to dry this years crop of basil for the winter.
I will also raise at least one pot of tomatoes and fill
my strawberry jar with new strawberry plants. After
all, everyone in town is doing it and people will talk
if I abstain.