I believe in eggplant. My mother’s eggplant.
Although I’d been fixing eggplant for many years, I didn’t stumble across my mother’s eggplant until my husband bought a ceramic barbecue. One evening, I handed over a shiny, purple eggplant for him to roast over the coals.
After the eggplant cooled off, I peeled the blackened skin, then mashed the pulp. I fried onions, garlic, chili peppers, turmeric, and cumin seeds. My big fancy kitchen took on the aroma of the tiny kitchen I had known as a child in India. I added the mashed eggplant along with finely chopped tomatoes and cilantro. At the very end, I added a dollop of creamy yogurt. It wasn’t until supper, when I finally had a bite of the eggplant with my rice, that I started crying.
“What’s the matter?” asked my husband. My small children looked worried.
“It’s my mother’s eggplant,” I stuttered, tears streaming down my face. “It’s my mother’s eggplant.”
“Really?” asked my four-year-old son.
I nodded my head. “She would love it if she were here with us today,” I sobbed.
I missed my mother so much. She had died over twenty years ago, but at that moment I was missing her as though she’d only just left this world. I wished she were at our kitchen table, telling us family stories, enjoying the food that I had prepared.
My husband rubbed my back until the wracking subsided. The children ate their supper of Tandoori chicken, peas, rice, and yogurt. And I began to eat, slowly, with stories tumbling out of my mouth. “We were so poor growing up in India that we used our gas stove only for boiling water. We cooked our food on hot coals in a tiny chula, a barbecue smaller than even the baby Green Egg we take camping.”
Some of my tears were from missing my mother. And some were because of the sudden realization that my son and daughter will never know her. I spooned a tiny bit of eggplant into my son’s mouth. “Too spicy, Mommy,” he said. He took several big gulps of milk. I held back giving a taste of it to my two-year-old daughter, who still enjoyed only completely plain food.
Both my children are in school now. They eat a wide variety of foods. They adore American hamburgers with a crisp vegetable platter. They love a Thai-style chicken-noodle soup. They gobble up South Indian rice crepes dipped in spicy lentil soup. And they eat my mother’s eggplant with rice, reluctantly, just as I ate it unenthusiastically as a child. All these foods are served with stories, some of them breathing life into my mother.
I imagine my grown children might one day bring home a shiny eggplant, roast it over hot coals, and carefully season it. They’ll remember to add a dollop of yogurt just before serving. And I believe they’ll remember me, my mother, and my mother’s eggplant.
Vijaya Bodach is a scientist turned writer. She shares her love of food and cooking, inextricably linked to her mother, who could make even tea and rotis into a feast. Ms. Bodach encourages others to share family recipes and stories to help keep beloved dead alive in their hearts. To learn more about her, visit www.vijayabodach.com.
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