Russian Chopped Eggplant
After my mother-in-law Florence Goldin left for assisted living care, I visited her vacant house to clean up and remove any potential objects that might have been left behind. In the garbage can, an old wooden bowl had been discarded. I lifted it and underneath found an old-fashioned hand-chopper. With those items, Florence used to make chopped eggplant from her own mother-in-law’s recipe. Once I asked her why she was not using her food processor. She said that the texture was important in this recipe, brought over from Russia to Portsmouth, Va by her mother-in-law, Fannie Goldin.
Photograph: a young Florence, college years
Florence and Fannie were opposites—an unlikely pair to be together. Fanny grew up in Kiev, barely educated, and moved to New York City to escape the Russian pogroms. She made her living by sewing and later by selling groceries in Charleston, SC. She moved to Portsmouth, Va after her husband died to be closer to her son Milton and his family.
Fanny babysat her five grandchildren, cooked, baked fabulous pies and cakes, whose recipes are long lost.
Fannie, sitting with her children: Frieda, left; Bella, right; baby Milton
Florence and Milton
Florence grew up an intellectual in Chicago, studying chemistry at Northwestern, and hoping to become a physician, a position that wasn’t readily available for women at that time. Although she, too, helped in her parents’ grocery store, she had a much higher ambition for herself.
She loved the arts, opera, and music. Having a beautiful voice, she sang in the choir at Gomley Chesed Synagogue in Portsmouth. She was a lifetime member of Hadassah and dragged Milton to their conferences and fundraising events. She was a good dancer. She was fashionable.
She didn’t manage to become a physician since medical schools didn’t look favorably at women candidates, but she accepted the limitation put on her gender and taught chemistry before having her children. She always said, “They wouldn’t let me become a physician, instead, I married one!”
As an upper-middle-class white woman, Florence had a comfortable life with servants and babysitters. She did cook and bake especially after her mother-in-law was sent to an old age home in Richmond.
However, the only recipe she kept from Fannie was the one for chopped eggplant, along with the wooden bowl and the chopper.
I continued the tradition that was passed down by the two mothers-in-law until my husband Norman took over the job. He remembered the recipe, and his is more authentic since he had tasted both his mother's and grandmother’s chopped eggplant.
4 eggplants, make sure they are not too heavy and full of seeds
A fistful of challah bread (Florence and Fanny’s recipe) or sourdough bread (Norman’s preference)
1/4 c white vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tender stocks of celery
1 small onion
Florence and Fannie baked the eggplant until the skin wrinkled. I once found Florence boiling the eggplants, something I had never known could be done and have never tried.
My preference is to grill the eggplants until charred.
Scoop out the inside and set aside
Soak the bread in vinegar and squeeze the extra vinegar out before adding to the bowl
Cut celery and onions and add to the bowl. Add salt and pepper and chop all ingredients until they are cut into small pieces. Add eggplant and chop gently, folding all ingredients together.
Serve with crackers or pita bread.