The culinary blogosphere is suddenly obsessed with the history of eggplant parmigiana, with no fewer than five or six pieces appearing online in the past year (nothing like a pandemic to inspire new interest in your everyday fare).
Eggplant, or melanzane as the Italians call it, has been cultivated in Asia for several millennia. It arrived in Italy around the 9th century A.D., planted by the Arabs as they established the Islamic Emirate of Sicily. We primarily associate it today with the Southern part of the country, where it appears in several dishes with tomato sauce and cheese. But wait: the starring cheese, Parmigiana, is crafted 535 north in the city of Parma, so how do we account for the schizophrenic personality of eggplant parmigiana?
In the 15th and 16th centuries, cooking “Parmigiana style” simply referred to the practice of layering vegetables in casseroles. Some authorities insist that the name of the dish comes from the Sicilian word palmigiana, or shutters—a reference to the palm-thatched roofs that the eggplant slices resemble. Others claim the name derives from damigiana, a term for the wicker sleeve of a casserole dish; another theory holds that it refers to parmiciana, a Sicilian word for Persian.
Regardless of the etymology, the first reference to parmigiana occurred in a 1733 cookbook by Vincenzo Corrado, a chef from Puglia who used zucchini in place of eggplant. The dish was formally named in 1891 when it appeared in Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, by the immortal Pellegrino Artusi, sometimes referred to as the inventor of Italian cuisine. Artusi hailed from the Emilian town of Forlimpopoli, not far from Parma—which strengthens the case that the dish originated in the North after all.
Geography aside, the popularity of eggplant parmigiana is probably traceable to the fact that it’s nearly impossible to screw up the preparation of the dish. Slicing the eggplant is the difficult part. Once you have the slices—thin, but not so thin that they will disintegrate while cooking—salt them and let them sit for several hours then dip them in an egg wash, coat with breadcrumbs and sauté in olive oil. Sprinkle the slices with grated mozzarella as you layer them in a casserole, top with grated Parmigiana and more mozzarella, and bake with a zesty homemade tomato sauce. Don’t forget the Chianti.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.