Written by David S. Shields
Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2011
Certain foodstuffs that crossed the Atlantic with enslaved Africans had their African genesis recognized by prefixing the common English name of the generic item with "Guinea," the west African territory in which the Mandingo and Fula peoples lived: Guinea corn (Sorghum vulgaris), Guinea fowl (Numida meleagris), Guinea pea (Abrus precatorius), and Guinea squash or eggplant (Solatium melongena).
While introduced into England as a horticultural novelty at the end of the sixteenth century, the Guinea squash did not gain a foothold in European cuisine until the middle of the 19th century. In the American colonies, however, it became a fixture in those regions that used African slave labor: the West Indies, the mainland south, Central America, Brazil. In the United States the regions divided about the merits of the vegetable. A northern commentator observed in a 1839 issue of The Farmer & Gardener, and Live-Stock Breeder and Manager magazine, “This is considered a delicious vegetable; but little attention has, however, been paid to its cultivation, and it is seldom seen in our markets; but in the southern States great quantities are cultivated, and sold in their markets.”
Antebellum southern markets were controlled by whites, so the eggplant joined okra, benne, and the cowpea as foods that spread from the black hearthside to general consumption. In the earliest printed descriptions from white southerners of how guinea squash should be prepared for the table, we encounter the African mode of preparation — the preference for frying. William N. White, the south‟s most eloquent horticulturist on the eve of the Civil War, preserved a version of the traditional preparation in his 1857 handbook, Gardening in the South: “Cut the eggplant in slices a quarter of an inch thick. To remove the acrid taste, piles the slices on a plate with alternate layers of salt; raise one side of the plate, that the juice may run off. In half an hour wash them well in fresh water, and fry them quite brown in batter.” White observed that eggplant was an acquired taste; “they are not commonly liked at first, but after a few trials become very agreeable to most tastes, and are esteemed a delicacy.”
In states where African-American cooking did not greatly influence public taste, the penchant in dressing guinea squash as if it were a winter squash by transforming it into a form of baked pudding predominated. Like a pumpkin pie filling or a squash pudding, the guinea squash was boiled, mashed, mixed with egg yolks, bread, and spices before being baked. Despite prepping the vegetable in ways greatly similar to favorite familiar foodstuffs, New Englanders took their time embracing guinea squash's qualities. When the vegetable gained treatment in cook books (mostly printed in Boston, New York or Philadelphia), it did not appear under the southern name, but as "eggplant" — that moniker affixed to the plant by Europeans in the late 18th century to describe the small, white colored ornamental eggplants grown as specimens and exhibition plants, not the purple-blue, gourd-fruited vegetables that dominated culinary use. The name's eventual universal adoption testifies to the dominance of the agricultural press and the international cohort of horticultural savants who filled its pages.
Throughout the 1800s, instructions on how to grow the plant did not greatly very from the first directions published by Bernard M'Mahon in 1806: “This delicious vegetable may be propagated, by sowing the seed, on a slight hot-bed, the beginning of this month [April], or in March; and towards the middle or latter part of May, they should be planted in a rich warm piece of ground, at the distance of two feet and a half asunder, for the purple, or two feet for the white kind; and if kept clean, and a little earth drawn up to their stems, when about a foot high they will produce plenty of fruit.” Eggplants are annuals, grown from seed that takes substantial time to germinate. While growing care had to be take to limit the depredations of the potato bug, that particularly savored eggplant foliage and fruit. While the insect throve on egg plant leaves, neither animals nor man can eat them without suffering narcotic poisoning. Gardener Robert Buist recommended regular watering of the plant.
In the north market gardeners grew the eggplant as a hot house plant. But a robust market for the crop did not develop until the late 1870s when French recipes for the Aubergine gave the vegetable cachet among persons maintaining a fashionable table. Because the Guinea squash requires sustained heat (67-70 degrees Fahrenheit) for germination and early growth, it developed a reputation as a difficult plants in regions with variable spring weather. In the south what became apparent to regular planters of the vegetable was its resilience once established. “No vegetable with which I am acquainted, can withstand drouth better than the eggplant, which bears and matures its fruit under a degree of heat and dryness that would be fatal to other crops.” (A. Oemler, Truck Farming at the South (New York: Orange Judd Co., 1884), p. 177.) One could plant the Guinea squash in the sandiest portions of one‟s land, provided compost or manure had been well intermixed, and produce a thriving crop. The standard garden rotation was the plant the Guinea squash in succession to a heavily manured plant, such as cabbages or onions, followed by a root vegetable, excepting the potato.
While experimental gardeners played with the white eggplants, kitchen gardeners early in the 19th century cultivated the smooth-stemmed purple, which comes to maturation rather quickly, and the prickly stemmed purple, a later season variety. In the mid-century the “Long Purple” came into favor. After the Civil War the latter variety was tweaked by plant breeders into the “New York Improved Purple.” In the early 1880s the darker colored, more compact “Black Pekin” came into wide cultivation, while fancy gardeners amused themselves with the Scarlet-fruited and Guadaloupe Striped novelty varieties.
The recipes below illustrate the regional variations in treatment. The first six are from southern sources, the last five from northern and western books. It should be noted, however, that the southern recipes were contained in books printed in northern cities for the most part, and so substituted eggplant for the local usage of guinea squash. Guinea squash remained the favored designation in horticultural books and the southern agricultural journals. Many of the latter imprints were published in southern locales.
A Final World from the New England Kitchen Magazine 3 of 1895: “There are dozens and dozens of real Southern dishes that delight the souls of those who eat them when prepared properly—sugared sweet potatoes, guineas squashes, corn fritters, etc. — but the Northern built menus seldom or never mention them. They tell us to eat hominy with sugar for breakfast, and salmon with egg sauce for supper!”
Fried Egg Plant
Purple ones are best. Take young fresh ones, putt out the stem, parboil them to take out the bitter taste, cut them in slices an inch thick without peeling them, dip them in the yolk of an egg, and cover them with grated bread, and a little salt and pepper; when one side has dried, cover the other in the same way, then fry them a nice brown. They are very delicious, tasting much like soft crabs.
Mrs. Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook (Baltimore: Plaskitt, Fite & Co., 1838), p. 108.
Broiled Egg Plant
Split the egg plant in two, peel it, and take the seed out, put it in a crockery dish, sprinkle on chopped parsley, salt, and pepper; cover the dish, and leave thus about forty minutes; then take it off, put it on a greased and warmed gridiron, and on a good fire; baste with a little sweet oil, and seasoning from the crockery dish, and serve with the drippings when properly broiled. It is a delicious dish.
Pierre Blot, What to Eat, and How to Cook It (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1863). p. 182.
To Bake Guinea Squash, or Egg-Plant
Parboil the squashes until they are tender, changing the water two of three times, to extract the bitterness. Then cut them lengthwise in two, and scoop out the inside, being careful not to break the skin. —Season the pulp of the squashes with pepper, salt, crumbs of bread, butter, and a slice of onion, chopped fine (this last ingredient, if not liked, may be omitted). Mix all well together, and fill the skins of the squashes with the mixture lay them on a plate, and bake in a Dutch oven. They do not take long to boil, but require two or three hours to be baked brown.
[Sarah Rutledge], The Carolina Housewife, or House and Home: by a Lady of Charleston (Charleston: W. R. Babcock & Co., 1847), pp. 100-101.
Breakfast Egg Plant
The purple egg plant is better than the white ones. Boil them whole in planty of water until tender, then take them up, drain them after having taken off the skins, cut them up and wash them in a deep dish or pan; mix with them some grated bread, powdered sweet marjoram, and a large piece of butter, and a few pounded cloves. Grate a layer of bread over the top, and brown it in an oven. Send it to table in the same dish.
Mrs.L. G. Abell, The Skillful Housewife’s Book: or Complete Guide to Domestic Cookery (New York: Orange Judd & Co., 1852), p. 106.
Stuffed Egg-plants a la Creole
Parboil the egg-plants; cut them in halves; scoop out the inside, being careful not to break the outside skin, which you refill later with the following stuffing: Mix up the insight of the egg-plant with a slice of boiled ham chopped very fine, bread crumbs, butter, salt, and pepper — shrimps if you have them, make a delicious addition; bind this stuffing with the yolk of an egg and fill your egg-plant skins; sprinkle with powdered bread crumbs, put a small lump of butter on each piece, and bake.
Mrs. Washington, The Unrivalled Cook-Book and Housekeeper’s Guide (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), p. 192.
Quarter the egg-plant and lay it in salt and water the overnight, to extract the bitterness. The next day, parboil, peel and chop fine, and add bread crumbs (one teacup to a pint of egg-plant), eggs (two to a pint of egg-plant), salt, pepper, and butter to taste; enough milk to make a good batter. Bake in an earthen dish twenty minutes.
Mrs. R. L. O. Marion Cabell Tyree, Housekeeping in Old Virginia (Louisville: John P. Morton, 1879), p. 249.
Egg Plant Dressed as Oysters
Wash an egg plant, and boil it until it is perfectly soft, but not broken. Take out all the inside, mash it and season with a piece of butter, pepper and salt to your taste. Beat the yolks of three eggs very thick. Crumb a stale baker‟s loaf, and season it with salt and pepper. Have ready a pan of hot lard and butter mixed; take a spoonful of the plant, dip it into the egg, cover it with the crumbs, and drop it into the pan to fry. Take the back of the spoon and flatten the top of the plant, so as to form the shape of an oyster. When the under side is done, put some egg and bread over the top, turn it and fry a light brown. Serve hot for breakfast.
Hannah Widdifield, Widdifield’s New Cook Book; or, Practical Receipts for the Housewife (Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson, 1856), pp. 105-06.
Mashed Eggplant — A very fine way to dress Egg-Plant
Take as many eggplants as the size of your family requires — pare, quarter and boil them till soft enough to mash like turnips. Mash them, add a little bread crumb soaked in milk, butter, chopped parsley, an onion boiled and mashed, some butter, pepper, and salt. Mix these well together, and pour it into a baking dish; cover the top with grated bread, and bake it for half an hour.
Sarah Josepha Hale, Mrs. Hale’s New Book of Cookery (New York: H. Long & Brother, 1852), p. 234.
Stewed Egg Plant
Slice and cut into dice half of a peeled egg plant, and throw into cold, salted water half an hour. Cook till very soft in boiling, salted water, and drain in a colander; throw back into the saucepan, and pour over it a pint of rich milk thickened with an every tablespoonful of flour; add one of butter and teaspoonful of salt. Let it cook till it thickens. Meantime, have one or two beaten eggs in the ish in which the vegetable is to be served, into which pour the egg plant while stirring briskly, to prevent the curdling of the egg. This makes a rarely excellent dish.
“Stewed Egg Plant,” Good Housekeeping a Family Journal 5 (May 14-Oct 29), p 237.
Vegetable Marrow Tart
Peel and core the marrow, cut into small pieces, boil until quite soft, drain the water well from it, and beat with a fork until all the lumps are out. Have ready three eggs, well beaten with a little milk, mix with the marrow until it is in the consistency of custard; sweeten it, and add a little grated nutmeg; pour into shallow dishes, lines with short paste, similar to baked custards.
Mrs. J. C. Croly, Jennie June’s American Cookery Book (New York: Excelsior Publishing House, 1878), p. 139.
Egg Plant Salad
Peel two middle-sized Egg Plants, cut them in slices a quarter of an inch thick, sprinkle each slice with a little salt, and put them together again. After half an hour press them gently, to extract the moisture. Then dry them on a napkin. Fry them lightly in clarified butter, then drain them on a napkin. When cold cut them in small pieces, put them in a salad bowl, with some scalloped pickled sturgeon, a spoonful of grated horse-radish mixted with mustard, a clove of fine chopped garlic, a little fine chopped parsley, and a handful of water cress. Season them with salt, pepper, olive oil, and vinegar. Mix the whole well together, then arrange them properly, and garnish them with stoned olives and hard boiled eggs cut into quarters.
Jules Arthur Harder, Physiology of Taste: Harder’s book of Practical American Cookery, 6 vols. (San Francisco, 1885), p. 155.