As the summer crop season draws to a close, the eggplant supply has dwindled. For awhile, though, there were eggplants every week—and as I sliced and salted, boiled and roasted, I began to wonder how we as a society decided that this stringy, bitter fruit was a worthwhile food source. To make eggplant palatable—let alone velvety-textured and flavorful—you often have to cook it twice. Salt it, rinse it, and let the bitterness drain away before you throw it into the stir fry. Or, oil it and let it roast for few minutes before you layer it into your lasagnas and moussakas. If you’re less ambitious in the kitchen, you can just boil it with salt and garlic until tender, or “forget” to take it out of the oven until your would-be lasagna slices bake into crispy chips.
Nowhere does the preparation involve or resemble eggs. How, then, did this vegetable come to be called an “eggplant”? An eggplant by any other name would sounds a little sweeter: aubergine in French and melanzana in Italian roll off the tongue, giving an air of refinement to the eggplant’s fussy preparation. As it happens, the etymologies of these names tell stories; the history of the eggplant coincides with the history of changing commerce, travel, and horticulture in Europe centuries ago.
When you hear “eggplant,” you very likely envision same kind I do, the kind most prevalent in supermarkets: a fairly large vegetable, bulbous and heavy-bottomed, with shiny skin in striking shade of deep dark purple that also goes by the name “eggplant” when used on upholstery. But eggplants come in a variety of shapes and colors: they can be long and slender or short and round, purple or white or yellow or green. Fairytale eggplant, a favorite at Philadelphia farmer’s markets, is small and thin, striated with white and pale violet.
It’s not too hard to imagine, then, that the eggplants first brought to the English-speaking British Isles might have been primarily small, ovoid fruits with white or pale yellow skin—looking rather like goose eggs growing on a vine.
Eggplants arrived in Britain by way of the French, who would have called them aubergines; in fact, that term is more common in British English than our ordinary eggplant. There is no real consensus on where this word aubergine comes from: some linguists link it to Spanish berenjena, thought to be a mispronunciation of an old Arabic word for eggplant. The Oxford English Dictionary consider it a diminutive form of alberge, a kind of peach—possibly an apricot, since the word is similar to Spanish alberchigo for the smaller hot-weather fruit (which, coincidentally, also came from the east).
Despite the lack of clarity, we can learn a few things about the place of eggplants in history. For one, it was certainly considered a fruit by our forebears: savory flavors aside, the eggplant’s soft, seeded flesh and edible skin placed it in the same family as other fleshy fruits, like apricots and apples. (Apple, and its romance-language equivalents as you’ll see below, was historically used as a catch-all category of plant, like the term fruit today.) For another, the twisty linguistic history of aubergine traces the path of eggplants from their native Asia to our own tables. Like much of their produce, eggplants arrived in England from France; like many other exotic fruits, France learned to grow eggplants from their southerly neighbor Spain; Spain’s long history of Mediterranean trade brought them eggplants along with many other fruits and vegetables (spinach, artichokes, pomegranates) improved by Arabic horticulture. A venerable and cosmopolitan history indeed.
However, eggplants haven’t always enjoyed such a fine reputation. Ordering melanzane alla parmigiana at a South Philly restaurant may sound elegant to our ears, but the Italian word for eggplant is thought to be rooted in the Latin words mala insana, or “apple of insanity.” Italians weren’t the only ones wary of the vegetable’s possible poisonousness; the English sometimes called eggplants “madde apples.” But no, the Latin name does not allude to my plight of trying to cook weekly summer eggplants into submission.
Eggplants—like tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers—belong to the nightshade family, many of which produce alkaloids with toxic and sometimes psychotropic effects. You’ve probably heard of the dangerous side effects of belladonna or deadly nightshade, but you may be more personally acquainted with the mood-altering nightshade called tobacco. As it happens, eggplants secrete a little nicotine alkaloid in their seeds—that’s what makes them quite bitter unless cooked thoroughly. But despite the suspicion that faced early European eggplants, reports of eggplant-induced madness are vanishingly rare.
It’s too bad: melanzanemania has a nice ring to it.
Wikipedia’s knowledge of eggplants and nightshades
The Oxford English Dictionary
Lipkowitz, Ina. Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language.