My whole life, I thought I knew how to cook. People (mainly: men) always asked me, and I would say yes every time. Here’s the thing: When it boils down to it, there is only one dish on this planet that I can make with confidence, and that is eggplant Parmigiana, a dish I learned from my mother, Annette Nicorvo, who learned from her mother, Louise Dorsa, who learned from her Sicilian mother, Mary Lucas. (These are their maiden names).
When I was young, and could barely peep my eyes over the counter, I would offer my small hands to help. I’d wrap on my pink apron outlined in lace and pull up a kitchen chair by the stove. The uncooked eggplant slices seemed endless, and we’d dip all of them into the bowl of cracked egg and then the bowl of breadcrumbs and into the boiling olive oil. I’d always make such a yolky mess, but my mother never complained about it. She enjoyed the company in the kitchen over efficiency.
As I grew up, I no longer needed the chair, and I’d do the dipping next to Annette while she fried. This process always felt like it took forever, and I’d say, “I’d got it, Mom.” Trying not to be too excited, she’d say, “You sure?” By the end, I always burned the last little slices, “It will all taste the same,” she’d say. After the frying I never could remember if the marinara sauce went first in the baking dish or if it was the eggplant or the cheese. “Sauce, eggplant, sauce, cheese, eggplant,” my mother said from the couch with her feet up. I looked down at the baking dish and back up. “What?” She’d say again, “Sauce, eggplant, sauce, cheese, eggplant, sauce.” Poor mother. All she wanted to do after a day of university teaching was to have one glass of Chardonnay and get her kids fed so she could say she did it. Instead, I had her yapping like a parrot, “SAUCE! EGGPLANT! SAUCE!”
My mother worked hard. She grew up in a small town called South Amboy in New Jersey, exit 123. Raised Catholic by her Italian parents. Father was from the North, mother from the South. Even being Italian isn’t enough for the Italian man. “But where in Italy are you from?” My mother once dreamed of becoming a nun, and then those Irish boys became more tempting than God. Annette was always a good student. Going above and beyond her call of duty. She used to stay after school and help the nuns clean the floors and statues. Who does that? My mother. She got a master's degree in nursing and later on a Ph.D. in clinical research. I am surprised my food was ever warm.
When I was young, Annette cycled primarily through seven dishes: lasagna, zucchini, quiche, chicken Marsala, pot roast, chicken Parmesan, and eggplant. I don’t know why eggplant was my favorite. Chicken Parm scared me—I couldn’t lick my fingers between frying. “You’ll get salmonella!” she’d say.
I don’t know how my mom found the time to cook. She worked full time, sent her five kids through private school, managed to laugh with my dad, and made sure some dish that usually included cheese was on the table. I’m very grateful. Poor mothers. They often have to wait over 20 years before getting a sincere thank you.
To this day if I make you an eggplant Parmesan, it’s the greatest form of love I can give. It’s my childhood, it’s my mother, it’s the pride of where I’ve been and where I’m going. So do I know how to cook? Yeah. You got three eggs, bread crumbs, olive oil, marinara, mozzarella and two eggplants? Yeah, I know how to cook.
Emily Browning is a Los Angeles based writer, actress and stand up comedian. You can read more of her work at www.emilyannebrowning.com.
3 c. breadcrumbs (probably more)
1 large jar marinara sauce (make your own for extra points)
a lot of mozzarella cheese (or pecorino if you’re fancy)
Slice eggplants about 1/2 inch thick.
Whisk eggs in a bowl.
Fill a separate bowl with breadcrumbs.
Add optional oregano to the breadcrumbs.
Heat a generous amount of olive oil in large saucepan.
Dip slices of eggplant in egg and then in breadcrumbs.
Place breadcrumbed slices in oil.
Sauté until golden brown and then flip.
Place on a napkin covered plate to soak up extra oil.
Cover the bottom of a 9 x 12 baking dish with marinara sauce.
Begin to layer: eggplant, sauce, cheese, eggplant, sauce, cheese.
Add extra cheese on top.
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour, removing foil off for the last 15 minutes.