Eggplant, an old world plant related to nightshade, also is related to new world vegetables like tomatoes, chili peppers and potatoes.  While there is no consensus about eggplant’s place of origin, it is believed to have been cultivated in India, Africa and South Asia since prehistory.  The fact that there are numerous Arabic and North African names for it, but few ancient Greek or Roman names, supports this conclusion. 

It was grown by Arabs throughout the Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages, and introduced to Spain in the 8th century.  Among many eggplant preparations devised by the Spanish was the pickling of small, white varieties, making them look and feel like goose eggs.  Hence the name.  Eggplant was not recorded in England until the 16th century and could have been carried to the new world by the Spanish. 

Some accounts attribute its arrival in the United States to Thomas Jefferson, who might have gotten it from France or from the newly arrived African slaves who actually did the gardening at Monticello.  By the 1840s, both purple and white eggplants could be found in American gardens and it had become a prominent part of the American diet, at least in the south.  The plant’s popularity increased with the later arrival of immigrants from the Middle East and Italy, who brought their own recipes.

As was the case with tomatoes, eggplant’s relationship to nightshade caused people to fear it was poisonous.  The Italian word for eggplant, melanzana, translates as “the apple of madness.”  In the folklore of several cultures, mad apples were linked to insanity.  But, eventually, people overcame fear and learned to appreciate eggplant’s complex taste and ability to absorb the flavors of accompanying sauces.