The past year has been rough for me and the eggplant. Here’s how it broke down.
In early April I’m out looking for a good gardening time, and I buy a fine looking specimen of Ichiban eggplant from a local box store. I know, I know, you don’t always meet the best quality plants in a big box store, but this plant was different. I mean, he was big. He was robust. He was gorgeous. We had chemistry. I put him in the garden, four feet away from anything else, because a fellow needs a little privacy. Still, there was trouble on the way. There were potatoes on the block. And his neighbor was a young Black Beauty zucchini, hatched out of an AeroGarden in my very own kitchen, the little traitor. She didn’t look like much when the two first became neighbors, but she grew. She burgeoned. And trust me when I tell you, she had tentacles. Sure enough, before too long, she and Ichiban get to talking.
In the meantime, I am so excited about how well my zucchini and cucumber seedlings turned out, that I decide to try something else. I study the photo on the front of a Hansel Eggplant seed packet. The fruit is trim and svelte. I can imagine myself setting him up in his own apartment, up on the deck, far from Ichiban, and visiting him on the side. Nothing serious, you understand. Just a fling. He promises to produce fruit that is sleek and manageable. So I sign the lease on the deck pot and start the seeds.
The first week of May, Hansel’s seeds begin to curl up out of the soil. They are delicate and lovely. With their arched necks, they look like swans. I think I’m falling in love with Hansel. I didn’t see this coming at all.
A few weeks later I thin the Hansel seedlings. It is truly painful. I hate to do it. I had 3 in one pot and 4 in the other, now they are 2 and 1. It was awful, but necessary. After all, this isn’t just a fling anymore. A relationship takes work and sacrifice. It must be nurtured. It’s important that both partner’s needs be met, and there’s just not enough space and soil in these little starter pots to go around. Things are better now. Still, I cannot fathom that these slim little numbers with their tiny true leaves are ever going to look as big and strong and impressive as Ichiban.
In June I watch with anticipation as Ichiban begins to set fruit. At first it’s just a purple nub, then a knob, and then it begins to swell and expand. It’s glossy and breathtaking. It seems to gain inches a day. I’m planning our future together. The ratatouille. The parmesan. The fritters. The rollatini. I’m ambitious. I’m optimistic.
But by the end of June, the little drama that began on an April afternoon in a big box garden center between Ichiban and I has entirely played itself out. The potato beetles have been munching on his leaves. His fruit has darkened. It’s scabby and pockmarked from bugs. It didn’t make it, and it seems unlikely that there will be a second chance. There’s no meal to plan. There isn’t even an appetizer.
Ichiban himself is looking worn down. He looks a tad bit weaker. He’s somewhat less imposing, less reassuring than he once was. No one else seems to notice. But I know. I can see what’s coming. After all, we’ve only been together for a few months – and there have been my occasional dalliances with Hansel – but for a few moments Ichiban and I were soul mates. For a time, at least, I knew him so well.
I transplant my Hansel seedlings out into slightly bigger pots on the deck. They all want my attention. They bicker. They fight amongst themselves. There is weather. Eventually one of them wins my favor as the others prove themselves to be less hardy. The others make themselves scarce and Hansel takes up permanent residence. We’re picking out basil leaves and casserole dishes. I can’t believe that I got over Ichiban. I never thought that I would ratatouille with anyone else. Hansel is slim and strong. His big hands are always splayed, soaking up the sun. It turns out that he’s also something of a showoff. By mid-August there is finally a nub, a knob, an elongation – and another, and another. He is virile and tireless. Ichiban and his single, turgid and ultimately ineffectual fruit no longer comes to mind.
I’m planning to spend Thanksgiving with Hansel. I’m planning our Christmas. Everything is perfect. Everything is bliss.
And then he catches my daughter’s eye. One glimpse of that luscious and ever-lengthening aubergine and she can’t keep her hands off of him. She’s cuter than I am, too. She has curly blond hair and an infectious laugh. She’s incurably optimistic. Hansel is smitten. He drops a fruit into her little hands. She brings it to me. She is happy. She is proud. I am heartbroken.
Still, I try to make the best of it. I take the small fruit into the kitchen and cut it open. Perhaps it will be edible. It’s greenish inside, but I cube it anyway. I put it in a casserole dish, drizzle it with olive oil, grind some sea salt over it, and roast it. When it comes out it looks right, but it’s bitter. Not edible. I throw it away, without too many hard feelings. After all, Hansel is prodigious. There’s enough of him to go around. There will be other fruits. Other opportunities.
But as it turns out, the other opportunities are not for me – they’re for my daughter. Hansel is dropping his immature fruit into her eager hands at the rate of about one a day. It seems like every time I turn my back, they are together.
I can’t blame her for it. I don’t fuss. I try to explain to her that relationships take time to mature, that despite the power of anticipation, despite the lure of his beauty, that Hansel is not yet ready – I am not yet ready and neither is she – for the requirements of the kitchen.
Still, the purple ovals are piling up on my kitchen windowsill where they refuse to ripen. Each one is slimmer and smaller and harder than the last. Eventually, I have to throw them all away.
As fall comes on, my daughter loses interest in him, and Hansel and I try to patch things up. I bring him inside and set him in a southern-facing window, and he sets another fruit, but I can tell he doesn’t mean it. Occasionally I can’t help myself and I stroke his slightly fuzzy leaves and think about the way we were, but he doesn’t engage with me the way that he once did. He spends all his time hanging out with the tomato cuttings and those ne’er-do-wells Jalapeño, Serrano, Carmen and Anaheim. They’re all getting limp and dropping leaves together and their fruits are shriveling.
And then there are aphids.
And that is that.
So there you have it. The whole and ugly truth. The whole romance. I won’t lie to you. I’m frustrated. I’m bitter. I want revenge.
I still have a few Hansel seeds laying around, and I’m going to sprout them this winter. Once they have their true leaves and a little bit of weight on them, when the weather breaks and the soil begins to warm, I’m going to harden them off and I’m going to usher them reverently out into the garden to live with my potatoes – as a trap crop for the inevitable Colorado Potato Beetles – because I’ve had it with Ichiban and Hansel both. I’m over them.
It’s a harsh plan and a ruthless one, but at bottom I can’t help but think that it is sound. In fact, I know it is. Potato beetles love eggplant leaves almost as much as they love potatoes. I’ve both read about it, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I mean, the rampant and smothering attentions of Black Beauty aside, look what the beetles did to Ichiban.
I can’t see myself ever in another serious relationship with an eggplant. The ones I’ve known are not as productive, as hardy or as versatile as the tomato. They lack the staying power of potatoes, the zest of the jalapeño. They’re fickle and flighty and temperamental and it takes all too little to turn their heads.
Still, this past week I was flipping through a seed catalog and I have to say that there were a few fellows that caught my eye. They were unusual colors. Flashy and exotic. I’ve got my eye right now on a packet of Applegreen seeds that look like they might be both fun and easy on the eyes. I had a recent fantasy about the egg-shaped globes on Listada De Gandia.
Nothing long term, you understand. I’m not planning any menus around them. I’m just saying a date. Maybe a fling. And once I’ve gone that far I suppose there is always the possibility – the slightest possibility – of a long, drawn out affair. We’ll see.
I mean, hey. A girl’s gotta live.
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