Eggplant is the queen of the garden. Almost purple-black in color with a glossy sheen and a cap like a crown, it looks like royalty. The taste is fit for royalty, too! Mouth-watering eggplant parmigiana, stuffed eggplant or a southern-style dish like french-fried eggplant is always a treat at the table.
Eggplant has been around for a long time. It originally came from India and was known in Arabia, where sheiks and shahs thought very highly of it. It was introduced by Arabians to the people of Spain, who later brought it to this country, and both purple and white varieties were growing here by 1806.
One of the earliest references to eggplant is from a fifth-century Chinese book. It seems that Chinese women considered it high fashion to stain their teeth with a black dye made from eggplant. They then polished their teeth until they shone like metal.
But eggplant as a food or fashion accessory wasn't popular everywhere. In 15th- and 16th-century Europe, eggplant were called "mad apples" because it was thought that eating them would make a person insane. Even when this fear started dying away, Europeans still wouldn't eat eggplant as they considered it poisonous. Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, the same as tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and belladonna. Eye drops derived from belladonna (also called deadly nightshade) were used by fashionable women to make their eyes appear larger. Once in a while someone would drink belladonna and die of the effects. No wonder, knowing eggplant and deadly nightshade were related, people shied away from eating eggplant.
Ultimately, eggplant became as popular in Europe as in the Middle East. Now you can grow eggplant varieties as large as melons or as small as eggs in purple, white, green or violet and white striped. Still, eggplant remains more popular overseas than it does here. There are more varieties under cultivation in Europe and Japan than there are in America.
Article published on April 21, 2005.