When I was growing up, my father’s 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 reason—Eggplant Parmesan.
In the Pastecki household Eggplant Parmesan was taken very seriously. Richard’s wife, Rose, who worked full time while raising the couple’s 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 them.
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 d’oeuvres 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 neighbor’s 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. What’s 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 don’t 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 year’s 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.