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It’s my night to make something, not that it was assigned to me but it’s one of those things that’s part of the knowing portion of a marriage, all to do with the subtle, sometimes not so subtle, accrual of deficit in the ‘who did what’ area, though after all these years it’s still unresolved just how credits get transferred between categories—like ‘pick-ups and drop-offs’ or ‘yard’ or ‘food shopping.’ But these distinctions are incidental here, the point being simply that I got up knowing it would be my night to cook—and that I was glad enough. Which is not always the case. But even before I was fully out of bed I had pictured the sleek eggplant I had bought the other day–not because I had any big plan for it, but because I find it almost impossible to resist eggplants of a certain shape. And though I am pretty much always pro the vegetable, I am not so much drawn to the larger, more developed specimens, while the slimmer, more elongated ones—I almost cannot not buy. This is less because of anything I might do with them culinarily. They simply make me covetous. How to explain this? Do I need to? We are human, we covet. I like everything about the nubile variety of eggplant. The color: if there is a finer darkness, you will have to show it to me. The thing itself so shiny, cool, and mysterious–like it should be worth something. And yet here it is, just piled up in bins, all that stunning purple pushing toward black. And the weight, the feel–exactly right. Which is not the case for most things, which weigh arbitrarily. A bunch of celery, a sweet potato, for example. The first is indecisive, light; the second like it’s being punished, made to carry a burden. Not right. Whereas the eggplant is to the hand like a blade to a scabbard. But I am being silly. The point is that as soon as I decided that it was my night to make something, I pictured that eggplant I’d bought, and, picturing it, I thought automatically of how I would make my eggplant parmigiana, and my feet weren’t even on the floor before I had made the plan part of my day, one of those threads that will eventually be woven through with others that are still unknown. For if eggplant, then I will have to find some good fresh mozzarella—requiring a stop—and when will I do that? The day needs a map, if only a rough one. I can get the cheese, I realize—and some marinara sauce—when I drop my son off for his afternoon lesson, that works, and then I can start making the thing when we get home.  With that thought comes a small gust of anticipatory pleasure. Yes indeed, we’ll get home, it will be after five: jazz, wine—my nice cabernet–the blowing back and away of all the small griefs and frustrations that will by then have collected. So that eggplant–I can see it there, on the left, on the middle shelf–how can it not become a little iconic signifier, flashing up throughout the day on the retinal screen, reminding me each time that a purpose and a pleasure are in the offing, a happy business there in the kitchen at the end of the day.

And so it happens—miraculous, really, that something could be foreseen and then realized, that the hubris of making this little plan did not provoke the watchful gods, that they let things happen pretty much as planned. A clear plastic container of mozzarella, two wobbly eggs swimming in their milky water: picked up on schedule, the car running smoothly, no terrible jam-ups out by Fresh Pond and Alewife, and then the house still standing, not taken by arsonists or force majeure.  And look–the key slips into its lock like they were separated at birth, and the kitchen is quiet…

Eggplant parmigiana—the dish has a confusing nomenclature, and I’m just the person to get myself stuck on it. But it is, you have to agree, in a very small way, vexing. Whether the dish is, as many people seem to think—and pronounce accordingly—‘eggplant parmesan,’ or ‘eggplant parmigiana.’ The first suggests that parmesan is a dominant element, which for the way I make the dish is just not true. The second honors what I’m guessing is the city of origin. Parma. Like the ‘charterhouse’ of Parma, only this would be the eggplant of Parma. The problem, I have just realized, is that—I should look this up—parmesan very likely also finds its origin in Parma, very likely means ‘cheese of Parma’ or some such. I care, I am interested, but I can’t get myself to google to settle the matter for myself. Instead—instead, I open the refrigerator and fetch out my prize. And as I do—here is the shock, here is the corrective finger-flick from the gods—I see that the thing I’m holding, palming, turns out to be only about half the size I had been imagining. All day long, at intervals, I had been washing and then cutting into slices a conjured-up vegetable about twice the size of what I have here. This–this here cannot possibly fill out two full layers in the baking dish, no way, and—shoes off and wine glass there on the counter—I am not getting back into that car!  No—-

            Oh, but aren’t I the smart one! I’ve not even reached the sink before I know what I am going to do, and, not two beats later, I feel the spark of improvisation kick in. Bread, I think. Crusty bread. Crusty bread de-crusted. De-crusted, and then done up like French toast, oblong chunks interspersed with the dredged slices of eggplant!   For people who cook a lot this might be old hat, obvious, and maybe for some reason I can’t see yet, stupid, but to me right now it feels as though I have squared the circle. More wine!

Though I love the outer look of the eggplant, I also very much like taking a peeler and divesting the skin. It feels to me like pulling great strips of wallpaper off a wall, each pull of the blade yielding up such a nice supple length of purple. And I enjoy the contrast, what’s underneath–the firm pulpy meat that takes the knife so readily, lopping off into slices that I will put in the colander and douse with kosher salt, never not marveling at how it draws out the moisture. So that I can rinse and pat each slice dry with a paper towel, before dipping it into a beaten egg mixture I’ve made and dredging it in breadcrumbs poured out into a flat bowl. Each step is a pleasure of a different kind, which is maybe why I enjoy making this dish so much. From the peeling to the slicing to the salting to the dredging, getting closer and closer to the crafting of my special variant. For while the salt has been suctioning the slices in the colander, I have dealt with the bread, and I have set the two chaste-looking mozzarellas on the cutting board and sliced them as well; and, still waiting, I have grated up some excellent parmesan, rich and granular. And as soon as each piece of eggplant is dredged, I drop it onto the skillet to brown both sides, then lift it free with the spatula and build a kind of eggplant ziggurat. There is just enough egg mixture to coat the bread, and in about ten seconds I have my French toasts, and won’t this be a surprise, I’m thinking, I won’t tell anyone—-

And I didn’t. I sat and waited, watching their expressions carefully. There was nothing—they ate like this was just business as usual. Imagine. And after a time I grew impatient and confided that I had done something different with the dish, a surprise, and that they should guess. Lynn and Liam then looked at me, at their plates; they took up their forks. And then both—it was perfect–got that quizzical, intent expression. It was all for show, I knew it. They shook their heads and made the most improbable guesses. Had I added tarragon? Vanilla? Hot peppers? I knew that they were humoring me. They tasted nothing different. I thought of my breakthrough, my excitement. I smiled. Finally I just told them. I used bread, I said, French toasts in place of some of the eggplant. Pause. Was this interesting? Apparently not.  “Wow,” said Liam, laughing out loud. Lynn, a bit more sensitive, tried to praise my ingenuity. But she was looking at Liam, almost laughing. Myself, having eaten my fill, I was suddenly not as interested as I had been. Adding bread to my parmigiana did not seem that remarkable any more—it seemed like the obvious thing one would do. What was interesting was my wanting to be praised. What mattered was that everyone was sated, full.

  1. Leslie Lawrence on

    A luscious read. I love the “happy business in the kitchen,” the surprise when discovering the day had gone as planned, (at least until…) and I love Birkerts’ admission that he wanted praise. (Don’t we all?)

  2. Michelle Cacho-Negrete on

    The evident skills of a consummate writer, the use of words, the structure, are all so fantastic that I had to reread it immediately so that I was actually reading the essay rather than marveling at writing itself. Bravo!

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