la parmigiana (the false friend)
For the the last ten years I’ve avoided writing about la parmigiana, so complex is this dish in all ways but technique. To paraphrase Churchhill, la parmigiana… is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. And while I love to get my hands on a good one at least a few times a week, I’ve never taught the dish. I still may never. But maybe not for the reasons you might be thinking.
But here is what we know: 1) nearly every part of Southern Italy claims it as its own, viewing the dish as painfully indigenous, 2) It didn’t come from Parma, 3) Its immigration into the various cultures of the New World has been enough to modify the original to the point that few of the same elements remain, 4) That a good one can satisfy profoundly, and 5) that while anyone in Southern Italy can spot one from across the room, no two people agree, exactly, what a good parmigiana should contain, a false friend if ever there were one.
As a school we’ve had 32 different nations in our kitchen with us, which complicates nomenclature a bit: What is ‘aubergine’ in France (and thus, England) is ‘eggplant’ in the rest of the English speaking world, with the exception of South Africa, which refers to it as ‘brinjal’ (as a school we stay in Italian, referring to the fruit as ‘melanzana‘, a corruption derived from the original Sanskrit).
While the dish couldn’t be easier to prepare, it is a bit time consuming for two reasons: 1) you need to build it in layers, 2) you’ll need to dedicate yourself to knife fights with people that tell you that you’re making it wrong. No two people agree. Not only does it change from micro-region to micro-region inside of Italy, it changes from house to house on the same street.
Some have meatballs. Many have sliced hard boiled eggs. Many have a layer of mortadella.I’ve seen it with harder, smoked cheeses. And of course many versions are ‘modernised’ by sidestepping the frying, by baking or grilling le melanzane.
If you’ve been reading our content for a while then it will surprise no one that I keep mine as simple and as ‘classic’ as possible, revealing the probable Arab roots of the dish. And like virtually all my favourite Southern Italian dishes, la parmigiana has a secret ingredient: the elbow grease sumomoned by the ample heart of those that adore those for whom they cook.
Inevitably, someone will write me upon reading this and ask for the recipe even though I’ve never followed one and that these pictures tell the real story more than any fiction represented in measuring cups and kitchen scales. Here it is anyway. Slice. batter. Fry. Alternate with a rich tomato sauce and then slices of fresh mozzarella or fior di latte, and gratings of a hard cheese, such as parmigiano. Bake. Enrich it with goodies if you like, I don’t. Eat hot, or more tradionally, at room temperature.
(The tomato sauce we make each September, reduced, and rendered a bit zippy with a little peperoncino).
While, sadly, this never seems to work on the younger ones, I seem to have something of a gift for stealing the hearts of older ladies, mostly because I ask nearly everyone one I meet about her parmigiana: what does she put in hers, how is it different than her mother’s, grandmother’s, what are the city and regional variations, etc.
As a pick up line it works wonders and I’m routinely surrounded by groups of older women that walk me through the making of the dish, not really knowing that I make it all the time, nor that my school has one of the most impressive culinary libraries in all of Italy. (Don’t try playing the dumbie unless you’re selfless and completely unmotivated by ego).
Over the years as I’ve taught the cooking of Southern Italy I’ve heard week after week about ‘eggplant parm’, and how ‘old school’ and ‘down market’ the dish is, back in the restaurants of the students’ home countries. In their minds, apparently, the dish seems corrupted by years of the low brow and unspired cooking of those that never really loved it.
Emotionally, it’s too hard on me, that one culture can adopt, modify, corrupt and then thus finally block its citizens from appreciating the thing that it claims to love. Doubt me? Say aloud the name you know for this dish and consider how you feel about it. It’s likely that this dish has been wrecked for you, leaving your international airline tickets and guidebooks all but useless.
It’s why I’ve never taught it, opting to work rather from the blank canvas of the unknown element of Southern Italian food and wine, rather than trying to unteach our students to unlearn something they don’t really love. I may change my mind on this one day, but we just might need another ten years or so before I get there.
In the meantime, come to Southern Italy and you will find me, gleefully circled by clucking grandmothers, our conversation in raised and empassioned voices, me saying,
‘Really…Assunta, you put meatballs in yours? And you Maria Angela, la mortadella? Really?
Perhaps I’ll be scribbling gibberish into my notepad, as if I were taking it all in for the very first time.
‘Tell me more girls’, I’ll say, charmed until my cheeks burn red. They’ll gesture the battering of le melanzane with pudgy, old-lady hands, their voices reverting into village dialect as thick as green swamp water.
‘Spare no details my angels’, I’ll tell one plump one as three more join the circle.
‘I want you to tell me everything girls….. but maybe we ought to start from the top’.
To our calendar.
To read more about the annual student production of our tomato sauce
To read more about my three kitchens in Southern Italy