A simple question to Taghreed: why does eggplant feature so prominently in Iraqi cuisine?
Other Iraqis have told me that the eggplant has a somewhat humble status in their food world, and is a staple of those who can’t afford meat.
I want to hear another point of view, see if indeed this is the case for this photogenic but often ignored vegetable.
“True”, replies Taghreed.
For lower income people, eggplant was the mainstay of meals. Often simply fried, then served between bread with tomato and basil, it was the substitute for meat.
“It was always a delicious and beloved vegetable”, a minor player unless you couldn’t buy meat, she added. But the humble eggplant achieved superhero status in the nineties.
With the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, food became scarce and meat prohibitively expensive. Food imports trickled to a halt, and suddenly all those old family recipes for eggplant moved to the center stage.
I sit there, listening to her tell me about the eggplant dishes of Iraq. It is incongruous, that she is relating to me true anecdotes about how people half a world away from me found a way to make do, as I sip my cappuccino with a perfect head of foam.
It’s not just any cappuccino. This IS Seattle, after all.
I had a choice between medium or dark roasted beans, whole milk, skim milk, soy milk and almond milk. I designed it to fit my tastes exactly.
In this shop, there are a dozen different flavors of macarons to tempt the palate. The cakes in the case wink and wave as I gaze at each one longingly. The croissants look so delicate, like a mere glance at them will cause them to shatter. Everything beckons, tempts and whispers buttery seduction.
Waves of people queue up and leave, constantly swirling around us, enviously eyeing our table where we are camped. There are bevies of giggling co-eds, dressed up to be seen on a Sunday morning. Mothers in yoga pants and fathers in cargo shorts juggle children, beverages and their precious pastry loot as they wheel oversized strollers against the steady stream of humanity trying to make their way into the shop. An occasional guy in biking gear clip clops in with that curious gait biking shoes cause. Everyone is here for pastries and coffee. No one is thinking about eggplants, much less economic hardships two decades ago in a faraway land.
And yet, all I can think about is a whole nation surviving on eggplants. It is a stark contrast to my present surroundings. I am hearing first-hand about how our government sanctions have, and are affecting real people.
I remember the day the troops started mobilizing and shipping out back in the nineties. I was living in Atlanta, Georgia at the time. It was a normal errand day for me, you know, picking up groceries, dry cleaning and the like. Except for the long convoys of military trucks lumbering down the interstate. And the groups and clumps of people on the overpasses and sidewalks, waving the American flag and shouting out how proud they are, and God Bless.
It was still impersonal. I had no one in my close circle in the armed forces. The nearest I got to any soldiers heading out was when they were on flights I was working. I couldn’t and didn’t visualize what it must be like on other side to see America’s military coming at you; for me, it was just “would you care for a beverage?” and “thank you for flying Delta!”
Now there is a face to that nation of people our government declared the enemy, and she has a name. Suddenly, it IS personal, as close as Taghreed is from me, a mere two feet away.
I feel embarrassed, and ashamed. I feel bloated and spoiled and ignorant. I am humbled and in awe. Around me is the detritus of nothing more harmful than a few shards of croissant crumbs. I sit in safety, cosseted by the excess we consider necessary in our world as I listen to stories of survival during war
Taghreed tells me how the eggplant, a background singer in the all-star line-up of vegetables here, has become the “pan monster” and “hero” of the Iraqi diet. It is the understudy that finally gets its big break. It rescues the show and saves the day. It keeps Iraqi families fed and going.
The contrast between life here and life there is stark, loud and brutal.
When a nation paid for the sins of its leaders, a plebeian vegetable underdog filled the void, and their bellies.
Rich or poor, they ate eggplant. It was the Equalizer.