May 21, 2012
When I was young, my family vacation always seemed to involve a road trip. From our home on the San Francisco Peninsula, if we headed to anywhere in the west, we hopped in the car and drove. To Los Angeles, we drove. To Tahoe, we drove. To Crater Lake, we drove. To Vancouver, we drove. I can’t remember ever flying anywhere with my parents. If we couldn’t drive there, we didn’t go.
The cars we traveled in were crude by today’s standards. My father usually purchased a new car every two years, and it usually was the bottom‑of‑the‑line Chevrolet. These were cars where the radio, heater, and outside rearview mirrors were extras. Air conditioning wasn’t even an option. There was a bench seat in the front, and the gears were shifted from the steering column. To roll down the windows, we turned a crank. Wing windows—which don’t exist on cars anymore—were operated by pushing and pulling. On summer jaunts, we mostly drove with all the windows wide open so our rides were both drafty and loud.
The one feature that I hated the most about the road trips was that these cars often broke down. Dad always took the breakdowns in stride. He occasionally reminded us that the first car he drove on a road trip was a 1925 Franklin—he was all of 14 at the time, but his parents didn’t know how to drive—and that it had to have a total of four tires fixed on the trip between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park. On our road trips, we had engines overheat, we had brakes seize, we had carburetors stop vaporizing, and we had my mother, just after she learned to drive, bury the car in the side of a mountain.
We always started our trips before sunrise. Another tradition was deciding where to stop for breakfast. If we were heading to the north or east, we would usually stop in Vallejo at Terry’s Coffee Shop. It was just north of the Carquinez Bridge and about 90 minutes from home. We would pull into the parking lot just as the sun was coming up. The place always smelled of overcooked eggs and stale coffee. Going south was more of a problem. The highway—there wasn’t much of a freeway in those days—for the most part bypassed civilization until Salinas. My mother and father would argue about where to stop, and by the time they agreed upon a place, the car was past it, and Dad didn’t want to backtrack. By the time we would actually stop, usually in King City or Los Banos, they weren’t talking much to each other.
I was always amazed how much my father seemed to look forward to those road trips, considering how much he drove in his daily life. Each day, at a minimum, he commuted the sixty plus miles back and forth to his office in San Francisco. Once or twice a week, he would head out into the valley to visit customers on the way to the office. If he got far enough into the valley, he may have stopped at a farm stand to buy the fruit currently in season.
Likewise, when we drove past farm stands on our road trips, we would stop and purchase fruit. If we were on our way home, my mother would sometimes buy vegetables. But not very often since the vegetables usually were not washed and therefore below her standards. My father would explain that it was state law that only farmers could sell produce that didn’t meet the size or quality standards required for sale in an ordinary market. I was too young to question him, and it would be another 25 years until there would be a farmers market in our urban neighborhood.
When the first farmers market opened in Palo Alto in 1981, there was just a few stands and the fruits and vegetables were dirty, wilted, and overpriced. Today, all the vendor spaces are filled, everything—except at one stand—looks like it would at Whole Foods, and is still overpriced. There are are a few vendors that either have items of exceptional quality or items I can’t find in the local markets. It’s only at the farmers market where I can find frisée with a large amount of blanching. It’s only at the farmers market where I can find marigolds that haven’t been sprayed, and I only have to buy one. It’s only at the farmers market where I can find gigantic king oyster mushrooms without packaging so I can buy just one. And it’s only at the farmers market where I can find Mo.
Every week, Mo shows up with a huge cache of western and eastern vegetables. Her stuff may not be as pretty as some of the other vendors, but I like to look through her offerings to see what ideas they stimulate. Her produce is the origin of my take on fried green tomatoes
. It was at her stand where I videoed the stack of green onions featured at the start of the seventh chapter of my onion video
. It’s also been the site of many ideas that didn’t pan out. And one day, it was were I found some curious eggplants.
The little eggplants were almost perfect spheres. Their green skins had white streaks. Each was barely 3 cm (13⁄16 in) across—perfect for single bites. Mo labeled them as Thai eggplants. Without knowing what I would do with them, I purchased a handful and brought them home.
After they had sat in my refrigerator for a few days, I decided that before they spoiled, I should give some thought to their preparation. I read through my eggplant recipes in my computer files and checked out a number of Japanese cookbooks on my shelves. One book of zen‑buddhist recipes said to just simmer them in a little flavored dashi. So that’s what I did. The following weekend, guests were expected. On Saturday morning I purchased a few more of the tiny eggplants, made a couple of minor modifications to the recipe proportions, and served them to company. I intended to do the same the following weekend, but by then the season was finished, and I had to serve my guests a different amuse‑bouche.
4 small, about 3 cm (13⁄16 in) around
neutral vegetable oil
dried red peppers
crushed, dried red pepper
1. Carefully cut eggplants in half lengthwise so half the stem is still attached to each piece. Make three evenly spaced, shallow cuts, just through the skin, on the round side.
2. Heat the oil in a frying pan. Add the eggplant halves, flat‑side‑down. Fry the halves until the flat surface is lightly brown. Turn eggplant halves over, and cook the round side until each piece is semi‑soft.
3. Add the red peppers and the simmering sauce. Partially cover the frying pan, and cook the eggplant pieces until cooked through but still able to hold their shape. If necessary, lower the heat under the pan so the liquid simmers more than boils.
4. When cooked, remove the eggplant pieces and peppers. Set aside and keep warm. Reduce the simmering liquid slightly, and strain.
5. Serve in individual dishes with a small amount of the simmering liquid. Place one red pepper in each dish for color.
Yield: 4 servings.