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Trial and Error: Pursuing the perfect eggplant 

Susan Green

click to enlarge STEVE HOGAN
  • Steve Hogan

There will not be a single judge at Shepherd Ogden’s eggplant trials, although witnesses are likely. “If somebody forced me to eat an eggplant, I’d probably commit a crime and end up in court,” he confesses, clearly not a fan of the ancient Solanum melongena. “I’m a cheeseburger kind of guy.”

Despite his carnivorous predilection, Ogden is a man consumed with vegetables. In late March, he sowed the seeds of 76 varieties of eggplants in his Intervale greenhouse. In June, those that have germinated will be transplanted to the fertile ground outside. As they begin to bear fruit in late summer and fall, their gustatory appeal will be determined. A sous chef at Smokejacks plans to devise eggplant recipes. It’s not certain yet, but the jury will likely be convened from either invited guests or the staff of the downtown Burlington restaurant. Hence, the concept of “trials.”

As founder of The Cook’s Garden, a nationwide seed company with a research garden in the Queen City, Ogden tests all the veggies that he might want to sell. This season, he’ll plant 25 kinds of carrots, 45 types of peas and 155 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. The aim is to introduce Americans to the exotic produce of other lands. “We see which traditional crops from other cultures do well here,” Ogden explains.

Whatever its source, the eggplant packs in only about 28 calories per serving. With zero fat and plenty of dietary fiber, it should delight body-obsessed Americans. But most Westerners barely tolerate the stuff. About five years ago, Ogden and some friends tried to fool their children by grilling a few tubular-shaped Slim Jim eggplants at a picnic. “We called them vegetarian hotdogs,” he remembers. “But we never succeeded in getting a kid to eat one.”

Ogden’s eggplant perspective is a bit schizophrenic. “They’re just not native to us,” he suggests. “We consider them bland and spongy. Like tofu. We soak them in noxious sauces essentially to hide the eggplant. But they are absolutely beautiful, wonderful plants.”

His cross-kingdom compassion is apparent when he states the credo for what has become his life’s work: “Vegetables, in general, are very unsexy, so they’re treated as second-rate compared with the cheeses and the meats in cooking. I’m trying to get vegetables the respect they deserve.”

One thing that eggplants, in particular, have going for them is the vegetable’s “otherness,” which appeals to people with adventurous culinary imaginations. “My job is to find things that have been ignored in our culture,” says Ogden. “I have to find what there is in the world for eggplants, although I’m not interested in common hybrids. New things are popping up all the time. Chefs always want new ingredients to broaden our tastes.”

Eggplants are also gaining favor in the Burlington area as the city’s ethnic mix expands, observes the 52-year-old Ogden, who attended the University of Vermont in the 1960s. “I’m enhancing the possibilities of that diversity with my vegetable quest, and eggplant fits right into that,” he notes.

Ogden’s seed quest took him to Vietnam and Thailand in November. Like a botanically minded Indiana Jones, he discovered two eggplant strains previously unknown to him — the cylindrical Dok and the slightly more bulbous Xanh.

More recently, Ogden went to Costa Rica. “They had eggplants, but nothing interesting,” he says. “It’s not a big crop there.”

Other Latin American and Caribbean countries do excel in eggplant agriculture; the Bolivian Black and the Antigua are two kinds The Cook’s Garden will put on trial in 2002. But the species is indigenous to the Eastern Hemisphere. “The ancestral home of the eggplant is South Asia,” Ogden notes.

First cultivated in India 4000 years ago, the eggplant was considered a delicacy by Chinese emperors as far back as 600 B.C. Arab traders brought the seeds to Europe in the 16th century, but it took another 100 years or so for the aubergine, as it’s also called, to reach the New World. Thomas Jefferson supposedly became entranced by eggplants in Paris during the late 1700s; before long he was growing several varieties at Monticello.

The Turks have more than a thousand recipes for this member of the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. The eggplant is daily fare in Greece and the Middle East. Italians love their eggplant parmigiana, and the French get credit for ratatouille. The Green Tiger — an eggplant variety with a bitter, golf-ball-sized fruit — is a significant part of Thai cuisine, Ogden points out.

Casual observers who think of eggplants as purple, pear-shaped and about a foot long might be surprised to learn that some are tomato-red or as orange as a habañero pepper, according to Ogden. The tastes range from bland to bitter to sweet.

“Slim Jims have purple leaves, ornamental lavender flowers and bunches of thumb-sized lavender fruits,” he says. “The Osterei have fuzzy, pale-green leaves and little white fruits that look like eggs when they’re ready to be picked. The flat fruits on the Soxna, N’goyo and Ndrowa Issia, all from Africa, are big and rumpled, twice as wide as they are tall. The N’goya eggplant is reddish and looks something like a brain.”

Why the current spotlight on eggplants? “Every year, I pick something,” Ogden says. “Next time, I might really go to town on lettuces.”

In fact, lettuce is more or less Ogden’s bailiwick. In 1983 he started The Cook’s Garden — all about salad greens — at his former Londonderry home, not far from where he was raised in the rural quiet of Landgrove. “I’m a writer who took up gardening to feed myself, so that I wouldn’t have to paint so many houses,” he explains. “When those crops, like mesclun and radicchio, started to catch on, I couldn’t compete. But I realized people didn’t know how to find the seeds.”

At first, Ogden’s seed operation was merely an offshoot of his organic nursery and farm stand. He gave up the other endeavors to concentrate on his catalogue in 1988. The business now counts 50,000 customers in the United States and Canada.

Though Ogden sold The Cook’s Garden to the family-owned Park Seed Company in South Carolina a decade ago, he continued as president of the subsidiary. But he hopes to buy the venture back in the next few months. If he’s successful, the warehouse and distribution end of the business will relocate to Burlington, where Ogden has lived for the last eight years.

“I was never able to really fiddle around with eggplants much until I moved to the Champlain Valley,” he says. “There’s a warmer climate here. Londonderry’s a mountain town. I got more melons during one season in Burlington than in 18 years of growing them down there. The same is true of eggplants. In 1995, I planted 135 of them, but a grand total of three bore fruit.”

Nowadays, Ogden can explore the joys of growing such intriguingly named eggplant types as the Baby Marble, the Blue Devil, the Dark Dragon, the Morden Midget, the Pingtung, the Rosa Bianca, the Voletts di Firenze, the Verde Claro, the White Sword and the Cloud Nine, which sounds downright celestial.

For the upcoming eggplant trials, Ogden has planted just a few seeds of each of the 76 varieties. Those that flourish face some serious competition. As representative defendants at the trials, their ranks will be winnowed down to no more than the two best — a decision which will be made after the Smokejacks feast and through feedback from eggplant sales at area farmers’ markets.

These trials are more than mere taste tests. The Cook’s Garden’s 108-page catalogue, which lists 650 types of vegetable and flower seeds, only has enough space for 10 items in the Solanum melongena category. Ogden must bump another aubergine to make room for any newcomer to his inventory.

Many of Ogden’s specialized crops — carrots, melons, cucumbers, beans and tomatoes, for example — can offer raw proof of their deliciousness, so he hosts those trials on site during the annual Intervale Harvest Festival in September. Hungry passersby jot down their comments on sheets of paper attached to clipboards — but “there’s nothing very scientific about it,” Ogden admits.

The eggplant, on the other hand, can’t be eaten uncooked, which means that a kitchen is required. Anecdotal evidence will be entered into the record beginning in late summer, when epicureans sample the dishes concocted at Smokejacks. In the long run, however, flavor is just part of the testimony. Yield analysis and climatological adaptation are also crucial to the Cook’s Garden seed-selection verdict.

“I’m horticulturally serious,” Ogden asserts — even if he does prefer cheeseburgers to Cloud Nines.

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