By Elizabeth Speth
As a child, I was not sophisticated. I loved snack time and Big Bird, glittery snow on Christmas cards and other obvious things.
I never wept about opera, or paintings, or written words. That would or would not come later. I didn’t care one way or the other.
But my grandmother’s Eggplant Parmesan? That. Made me weep. Hysterically. When she said I could not have thirds.
Fast forward to today, as I huff and puff and lug tomatoes, eggplant and basil in from the garden on a 102 degree Northern California day. My grandmother would recognize my plump, over-heated, eager face.
Because I’m cooking today. I have a mission in the kitchen. That is my favorite.
Looking back, remembering as I watched her cook, I realize she made a Puttanesca sauce for that dish, which was different, and good. I have had to recreate many of her recipes from memory this way, because she did not share. I understand, now, that she withheld many things and kept many secrets. Certain women reserve the right to remain complicated.
But the sensuousness of her hands masterfully preparing food is seared upon my memories, and I trust them as I jot down my own formulas and techniques for cooking, in case my children are interested. I will share all of this, although my notes are short on cooking time and measurements. It is hard to fit a wave of love into a teaspoon.
So. Back to the recipe.
I pour all my yellow and red tomatoes, so many soft plops, into a pan of hot olive oil, add sea salt and pepper to the hiss, and watch them bubble and burst. I add honey here, to amplify the summer sweetness of what’s in my pot.
Then comes a sudden turning point in the plot as I scrape finely-diced anchovies off my knife into the sauce. I add chili flakes. Lots of them. Cognac. Garlic. Diced olives and vinegary capers. Fresh chopped basil. It’s a briny, spicy, sweet, rich, fresh-tasting concoction. Like no other. Like my grandmother’s.
I slice the eggplants and let them sit, salted, so the moisture will leach out. So they will not be slimy or bitter. I rinse them, dip them in beaten eggs, and panko bread crumbs. I fry them until they are crisp.
I layer the eggplant disks in a buttered pan with the Puttanesca sauce, and buffalo mozzarella and aged Parmesan. Top the thing off with bread crumbs and more Parmesan. Bake until brown and bubbly.
On my plate is another chapter in the history of my grandmother’s kitchen, and also in the history of my garden. As I walk through all the rooms of flavor on my fork, all the layers of the past and present in my mouth, I understand it is more than the sum of its parts.
I don’t weep as easily these days, now that I am no longer a child. But I acknowledge the urge. So I have a third helping.