Eggplants were the enemy.
Growing up, I learned what disappointment is whenever I’d bite into what I thought was chicken parmesan, only to find out it was eggplant instead. I laughed when I picked up Love in the Time of Cholera and read how the book’s heroine, Fermina Daza, felt tortured and trapped living at her mother-in-law’s house, where every meal was eggplant. But I couldn’t quite place what was horrible about them, not at first.
Meanwhile, for the first thirty years of my life, I never (knowingly) ate a turnip. My mother loves vegetables, and though we always had them with meals, she generally stuck to the basics, or to Mediterranean fare. When I left home, it never occurred to me to go and seek one out.
But there was one way our existences overlapped. When I was young, every night my parents would read to me from a collection of illustrated books of fairytales. One of my favorite stories was The Enormous Turnip, which I especially liked for its pictures. To this day, the tale conjures up images of a frazzle-haired farmer and a wiry-whiskered cat.
My husband couldn’t believe me about the turnips. In addition to being a typical French person — thus, an omnivore — he has an almost spiritual reverence for vegetables. He turns to them the same way others would to an oracle or healer. When he’s weak, ill, or troubled, instead of medicine or the expected comfort food, that’s what he asks me to buy. Sometimes he doesn’t even know how to prepare them, but it doesn’t seem to matter: the mere idea of légumes gives him a sense of relief.
As the person who does most of our grocery shopping, this has brought me into strange territory. The first time he asked me to buy leeks, for example, I had no idea what they were. He didn’t know the word in English, and the French term, poireaux, sounds very similar to the word for pear, poire, so I spent a long time on the phone with him, trying to understand why he’d want to make a soup of pear-like fruit and potatoes.
I’ve also spent years confusing the word navet (turnip) and navette (shuttle bus), often to the delight of friends and acquaintances. (On the other hand, I never get confused when it comes to pastries or chocolates, which often have creative names that have nothing to do with how they look or taste; I’ve always understood, for example, when someone told me they wanted an opéra for dessert, and have never felt the need to call the police when a person informs me their favorite snack is Petits Ecoliers (little schoolboys).) Today, though, I’m happy to say I’m able to navigate the market and the produce aisle more or less with ease.
I didn’t think of turning my attention to turnips; I decided to return to eggplants. I’d tried them, drowned in a delicious sauce, at a Chinese restaurant here, and I felt confident that they could be splendid to eat prepared in other ways, too. And so, I bought two, heavy, smooth-skinned specimens from the grocery store, and came home and researched different recipes.
I chose a sort of casserole of eggplant, onion, and tomato, garnished with spices and mozzarella cheese. It smelled wonderful, and, at first, was pretty good. But suddenly, I started to feel nauseous. I’d forgotten how eggplants actually tasted, and now it rushed back: pervasive, musky, reminiscent of something…..
As I chewed on, realizing that eggplant is the reason why I can’t finish a plate of ratatouille, it came to me: Eggplant is like licking secret parts of skin. Parts that are warm and often sweaty, impregnated with unpleasant odors. I remembered a man I’d been with who’d always had a taste to him that was slightly…off. Now I realized he’d tasted like eggplant.
I couldn’t eat the rest of what I’d made, regardless of how hard I’d worked on it. I told my husband to do whatever he wanted with the other eggplant I’d bought. I knew I’d never go back to that vegetable, unless its real taste was mercifully hidden by a Chinese sauce.
Still, this negative experience didn’t deter me from my vegetable explorations. I realized my husband and I had added turnips to homemade soups before, since they’re sold in prepackaged bundles of fresh vegetables for pot-au-feu. But we’d never been able to pinpoint their contribution to the soups’ taste. Now, we ventured further into turnip territory.
Potato-textured when cut, slightly sour-smelling, turnips don’t seem particularly appealing. But puréed, they have a unique aftertaste that’s perfectly complemented by butter and white cooking wine. Over time, I’ve come to really enjoy them. I may even grow to love them.
The happiness I felt when my parents read The Enormous Turnip to me as a child is now accompanied by the thought of the taste of turnips, soothing the same way potatoes are.
I’m very fond of the way turnips’ unpleasantly rough surface yields so easily to hot water, a show of vulnerability beneath tough skin. It’s funny how, before the advent of potatoes, turnips had a major role in European cuisine. They were also the original jack o’lanterns. But when Irish immigrants came to America, where there were more pumpkins than turnips, they realized the former were easier to carve. And so, the turnip was usurped again. And yet, they don’t seem to mind. They are shy and self-effacing — maybe too much so.
Eggplants are that guy you’re seeing that you know is no good for you. You’re not sure why you stay with him. Maybe it’s because he’s handsome. Maybe he’s a smooth talker. Maybe his heft makes him seem like someone you can lean on. But by now, being intimate with him has started to disgust you. Still you try. You push yourself to please him, even though he’s not very nice.
Turnips, on the other hand, are those people you meet in life and deeply love. They are humble and honest and true. If you treat them right, they’ll rise to greatness. Turnips are the person you were meant to find and stay with, and live happily ever after.
A version of this post originally appeared on my blog on Open Salon (RIP). This re-post is dedicated to soup weather, and, above all, to my late friend Steve Sherman, who loved this piece when he read it back in the day. There’s a lot I could say about Steve, but basically, he was a turnip if there ever was one.