E is for eggplant, F is for farming…
I like it when dirt clings to your skin. Nothing is more satisfying than reaching out and grasping a particularly stubborn weed and ripping it out of the soil, revealing the enormous network of roots in the earth. I like the calluses you get on your palms from gripping the shovel handle and the soreness in your back from bending over constantly.
When I run to Long Lane on a particularly rainy day, I take a moment to look at the entrance. I lie down on the ground and crane my neck under the faucet that connects to the house and drink thirstily. The tool shed is like a miniature house with its traditional peaked roof. It’s October now and most of the peppers are rotten on the inside; the mint is wilting too.
When the crops were more abundant, it was like being in a children’s book. Slender Asian eggplants glistened in rows, and they were anyone’s to pick. The peppers were so sweet and crunchy they could be eaten like apples. Heirloom tomatoes were mustard yellow and green striped, somehow beautiful in spite of their toad-like bumpiness.
With the inward satisfaction I now recognize as the thrill of a cheap college student’s access to free food, I gathered an armful of those glossy eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and rainbow chard so colorful it could be poisonous. I was struck with an almost painful desire to cook. I could practically taste my dad’s eggplant, studded with star anise and sprinkled with chopped cilantro. We were cooking tonight; that wasn’t even a question. Danny, a health-conscious foodie from the Bay Area, was in charge of the main course, Olivia dessert, and as for me, I would attempt to replicate my dad’s eggplant.
At 5:30, we reconvened at the campus grocery store, which stocks various random but overpriced items (think textured vegetable protein), but has no ginger, scallions or cilantro, all of which I needed. Armed with nothing but peanut oil, five spice powder, garlic, and some onions, it was clear that the dish had to be adapted.
Unfortunately, we had picked just about the worst day to cook. The tiny dorm kitchen was occupied by roughly two groups of people: Asians who were using the only rice cooker and Jews who were breaking the fast for Yom Kippur. Ironically, I could have fit into both those groups (apart from the fact that I wasn’t fasting). As a result, we waited for a solid hour and a half, drinking wine out of mugs and watching one girl cook a double batch of doughy latkes, which she fried one by one. Why she was even making latkes on Yom Kippur is beyond me.
There were only four burners, and they were all being used. Someone was nice enough to let us use some star anise, cornstarch and cooking wine. We cooked brown rice in a pot with a plate as the cover. There were heaps of onion peels, eggplant ends and other items for the compost pile on our cutting boards, which were balanced precariously on the edge of the stairwell.
Danny’s curry began with whisking homemade almond butter and coconut milk, to which he added Thai spices and what seemed like an inordinate amount of cloves. In fact, the sauce smelled so strongly that I made a mental note to call it “Gingerbread Curry…” but somehow, just somehow, once the vegetables and cubed tofu were added, that it worked. A few drops of fish sauce prevented it from tasting dessert-like, but since no cilantro, basil or lemongrass were to be found, it was clear that this would be far from Thai in the traditional sense. Can you put sage in coconut curry? Is there any way of knowing without trying?
“Are you making Thai food?” one particularly curious Asian girl who was clearly from Asia, asked us.
“Where are you from?” I asked, conveniently dodging the question.
“Thailand,” she responded, expectantly peering into the pot.
Well, in that case… no, we definitely weren’t making Thai food.
On to the eggplant: somehow, even though I must have substituted a third of the ingredients, it still tasted like my dad’s. The eggplant was silky (although the skin was too tough and had to be avoided), and the dish was spicy and subtly sweet from the star anise…. the perfect accompaniment, as it turned out, for the Gingerbread Curry.
Dessert was baked apples: we stole the apples, granola, and brown sugar out of the dining hall. Voila– cooking on a budget.
Sprawled out as comfortably as we could be in a dorm room, we ate with miscellaneous utensils and sipped cheap red wine out of mugs. But we were eating vegetables we had picked, food that we (as opposed to an industrial kitchen), had prepared.
It was all worth it to taste that eggplant again, with the familiar feel of chopsticks in my right hand.