The first time I smelt eggplant frying, I was eighteen years old and over at my new friend Eleni Papadakis’s parents’ place. The house had exposed brick and bronze reliefs on the wall, and as first year architecture students, we were allowed to exchange glances about this. Later, I fucked a boy that she liked and later still, she cried about that on my kitchen floor. I told her that she meant more to me than any boy, while I thought, you didn’t have a chance, lovie.
It was the olive oil that got me, shimmering in the air, pale and lucid, bringing me visions of Greek Islands stained by Lawrence Durrell and soft racism. As we stood around, watching Eleni’s mother beat béchamel, El told us about her cousin in Sydney who had a stained glass window with a picture of the acropolis of one side of her front door, and one with a picture of the Sydney Opera House on the other. We laughed, comfortable in the assumption that we were both laughing at the same thing. Then we ate the moussaka, a shapeless meal, this pile of lamb and cinnamon and béchamel that wandered into my mouth and then slid happily down my throat, but also shapeless in its endless succession of mezze and scooping salads and sweets and coffees and fruits and liqueurs that meant it was really hard to find a polite time to leave and head for the pub.
Years later, my then-mother-in-law, Cypriot, crazy as she liked and a terrifyingly good cook, made me Cypriot moussaka, and it was very important to her, and so to me, that it wasn’t made with eggplant, it was made with potato. She made us eat it at 10:30 in the morning because we had a train to catch, and it was both delicious and made me feel like I was going to die. My belly groaned at the floor through my pants, and she gave us some plastic-wrapped baklava and walnut-stuffed figs to eat on the train for when we got hungry again which, at the time, seemed inconceivable.
Michael, the boy I fucked back then, was probably gay, in the end. His bones were too big for his body and he always drank Midori, which might’ve been a clue, although that clue might’ve been to the fact that he was eighteen. I spent long hours in his bed, looking at myself in the blank side of CDs, checking that I could find something desirable in that face, even if he didn’t. He seemed to be always in the next room, waiting for me to leave, probably, most likely, or hanging out with his DJ mate in a way that was entirely appropriate.
Later, as it crawled in from the migrant to the gourmet to the mainstream, I sliced and salted and fried eggplant myself more times than I can remember. This was as I crawled around in hospitality, pretending to be a writer who was just doing chef work for the next little while. I mostly prepared eggplant as a part of making ratatouille, a stew that, it being the nineties, wasn’t yet naff, brought to me via the curly stylings of Gabriel Gate: heartfelt, European. He knew his potatoes and I wanted to know his potatoes too. There were many recipes for ratatouille that just dumped all of the vegetables into the pan at once, but I fried each of them separately, and roasted the capsicums over a naked gas flame, peeling back the burns that had become of its skin. The end result tasted better than the all-in-one-pot ratatouille, and I got the added bonus of being able to tell people that this was the proper way to make ratatouille, as if they had a deep knowledge of exactly what the fuck ratatouille was in suburban Australia in 1993.
I made this for my sister a few times, in an attempt to make her like me more.
You can eat ratatouille just as a stew, or with a fried egg, but I always made it into a pie. All the vegetably bits went into a roasting pan, then I whisked up yoghurt and some eggs, covered the top with parmesan and put it in the oven until it puffed as big as Gordon Ramsay’s hair. I made this for my sister a few times, in an attempt to make her like me more. This is what I remember most: placing down the pie, piles of washing up and six hours of frying behind me, and her saying that it was delicious, but never in quite the right way. “It has a lot of oil in it, hey?” she’d say, planning her run for the next morning.
Later, living in Canberra, leaving Canberra, I had a party. At the time, I was hanging out with two almost entirely separate crowds of people. The first was the decent folk, often drunker than was polite, with good jobs and an interest in rugby and legal firecrackers and probably some legal porn there too. My boyfriend was one of those guys. The other group were my people, the no-goodniks, who took any substance that came to hand and drank through the night and stole large pieces of metal and slept in the park and sometimes wrote some stuff and played some music and did some readings that may or may not have been amazing. They weren’t invited to my goodbye party. They were leaving with me, and the two groups wouldn’t mix anyway, I thought.
I had the party at my friend Frank’s house, so the no-goodniks wouldn’t drop round by mistake to hit me up for some goey. Frank was one of the decent ones, a handsome guy of the Brideshead Revisited mould, who had once had a girlfriend who had dissipated somehow into the endless stream of beers. He was highish up in the civil service, and I always remember him with his tie crooked and a bit of stubble, but that just could be because my memory is a breeding ground for clichés. He made a bonfire for my party - he liked to burn stuff when he was drunk, which meant he liked to burn stuff - and at some stage of the night he spent a lot of time poking at something on the fire. I watched him sway and thought that he would probably be fine. Then he came my way, with a bowl of greyish slop and a handful of Turkish bread. “Baba ghanoush,” he said, and I ate, and he ate, and maybe we let some other people eat too. It was the most delicious thing I have ever eaten, drunk love made into a paste with garlic and lemon and tahini.
When the century became the twenty-first, eggplant became middle-aged and middle-class. It lurked in the supermarket deli sections in snot-like vinegary strings, destined for an antipasto platter on an outside dining terrace, washed down with Pinot Grigio or somesuch, the lips that embraced it thick with Revlon. It appeared many times during various catering gigs that I did: salted, fried, marinated in either balsamic or pomegranate molasses depending on the decade, wrapped around bocconcini like a natty little cloak, stabbed together with a toothpick in a way that must have hurt the baby cheeses. I watched those treats go into many a bourgeois mouth as they discussed the state of universities or how books made of paper are just better or who was doing what to whose orifice right now and how that was a bit wrong. They would make awkward small talk with me because word got around that I had a PhD, but here I was, still frying eggplant and handing it out. “It seems like such a pity that you still have to do this kind of work,” one of them said to me, radiating well-meaning and duty free perfume.
I managed not to think about breaking up with him again until the lineup for the sarcophagus at MONA the next day, but to be fair, I probably wasn’t alone, it’s a long line, and there’s no mobile phone reception down there.
Last year, my then-boyfriend and I were in Hobart, to set the record straight and do a hard restart after yet another breakup. Our relationship had so many breakups that it looked like a mosaic birdbath at a midrange garden centre. This time, we were trying to heal our relationship by eating a 10,000 course degustation menu with matching wines at a restaurant so right-on that it didn’t even have a menu at all, just a list of ingredients you could choose from. One of those was eggplant, and luckily the eggplant came out quite early, because later on, I was so drunk that the courses became a delicious blur. The eggplant was pureed, like a baba ghanoush, but it was black. It tasted like smoke and earth and caviar and like all the good things from the ground had been sent to heaven. We smiled and nodded at each other as we tasted it, pleased in each other’s taste, pleased to be having the same taste for once, pleased not to be staring into the mid-distance, thinking about how the other person was not quite who we’d like them to be. The night went well, and I managed not to think about breaking up with him again until the lineup for the sarcophagus at MONA the next day, but to be fair, I probably wasn’t alone, it’s a long line, and there’s no mobile phone reception down there.
Eggplant was the first thing I cooked for the same boyfriend after he had his wisdom teeth out. It hadn’t gone well, and his mouth was a small puffy hole in which his tongue hung like so much antipasto. Fried gently, covered in white miso and soy and sesame oil – the eggplant, that is. He got it down in the end, making unpalatable noises, pushing it around with his numb tongue. “I can’t really taste anything,” he said, which was, embarrassingly enough, immensely annoying to me, because I may as well just have steamed rice. We later found out that part of his tongue was pretty much permanently damaged by the operation, so he would never have a full range of taste or be able to move his tongue completely again. This put a major dint in our relationship and we broke up soon afterwards. He loved eggplant very much. He loved vermentino too, and many cheeses, and Tori Amos, and assorted lesbians. He was good at loving things that couldn’t love him back.
This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #26. Get your copy now.
Helen Addison-Smith has been previously published in journals such as Island, Hecate and refo, and was featured in Overland’s first e-book Women’s Work. She’s a reformed chef and a persistent single mother.