Like slang and politics, food has fashions that mutate across time, according to economics and the whims of snobbery. As a kid in a working-class American family in the 1950s and 1960s, the only foreign cuisines I recognized were Italian and Chinese, heavily Americanized. My father was a meat-and-potatoes guy, almost literally. He once threw a fit in a Chinese restaurant when they didn’t serve white bread with the meal.
The list of foods I never heard of as a boy that now are commonplace in American groceries is extensive and includes yogurt, falafel, salsa, tofu, olive oil (except in Popeye), any cheese that wasn’t American or Swiss, any fish that wasn’t fried (except tuna, in a can), any pasta that was not spaghetti, any rice not Rice-A-Roni, and any vegetable other than corn, beans and potatoes. I remember the first time I ate an artichoke – in France, age twenty. I still haven’t eaten kale or Swiss chard, and probably would have mistaken them for compost, not foodstuffs. I first and last encountered cilantro at age forty. There were two spices – salt and pepper.
This came to mind while reading Nige’s post on the Great Aubergine Famine of 2021, at least in England. Not only had I never heard of an aubergine as a boy, and wouldn’t have known how to pronounce it; I wouldn’t even have known what an eggplant was. People in my neighborhood didn’t eat such things and wouldn’t have known how to prepare them: “Do you just bite in like an apple?” Now eggplant gets my vote for the prettiest vegetable.
Among Linnaeans, the eggplant is known as Solanum melongena, a member of the sprawling Solanaceae family, along with potatoes, tomatoes and deadly nightshade.
In his 1993 collection Sweetapple Earth (Carcanet), John Heath-Stubbs includes a sequence of eleven poems titled “Botanical Happy Families.” Among them is “Solanaceae.” Like the human family, it contains members who sustain us and others less wholesome:
“Falstaff thought potatoes aphrodisiac;
Tomatoes were called love-apples once.
Familiar and chaste enough,
They’re now in every sandwich, every salad.
We also welcome to our tables—
Although a bit exotic still—the aubergine,
The pimento, the chili pepper (Becky Sharp
Found its name misleading, you’ll recall).
“But in the shadows stand
Sinister enchantresses, as belladonna,
Dulcimara, with the screaming mandrake,
Datura, bringing death or visions.
"And there’s a false friend too,
And that’s tobacco.”
Reassuring to know Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006) judged aubergine “a bit exotic still.”