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Swan's egg, apricot, mad apple -- it all boils down to eggplant

Not long ago America was divided into the few who did and the many who didn't eat eggplant, let alone grow it. But tastes have broadened, and today's gardening catalogs offer five and more varieties of eggplants, including the small white ones resembling hen's eggs. Growing your own plants from seed gives you a wide selection of hues, shapes, and sizes. But more than that, you're assured of an essential quality of good eggplant -- firmness. (While doing this article, I checked a supermarket's eggplants and found all of them spongy.) As cookbooks warn, even slightly soft eggplant will have an off-flavor.

A 16th-century English herbalist, John Gerard, coined the name eggplant by likening the fruit to the ``bigness of a swan's egge,'' but in Britain today it is called bringal, or by its French name, aubergine, derived for some odd reason from alberge, French for a kind of peach or apricot. In Italy, the name melanzana comes from mala insana, or mad apple. A legend in Europe was that a single bit made you crazy.

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Whatever the myths, it's a plant whose culture requires close attention. You must be careful about temperatures, particularly when setting out the plants. In my area, 50 miles north of New York City, I've found it safest to wait until late May. The ground is warm then and the night air friendly to this sensitive native of tropical Asia. It needs heat for steady growth, and the lightest touch of frost kills it. You should expose the plants in their pots or flats to the outdoors gradually before putting them in the ground.

In setting out in the garden, eggplants should be spaced 2 to 21/2 feet apart in well-drained fertile soil to which you've added plenty of compost, manure, or other organic material. If you use chemical fertilizer, put some in at the start and again around the plants as the season moves on. Mulching is the best way to keep down weeds. If you stake, put the supports in at the start to avoid damaging roots later on. After a couple of fruits have set, you can pinch out, if you wish, any new flowers that show on the plant. This promotes maximum growth.

Botanical allies of tomatoes, eggplant are subject to leaf and fruit blight and verticulum wilt. It's helpful to use treated seeds and to rotate the planting area. You also have to look out for pests, particularly beetles. Some chefs say that even a slight blemish harms the fruit, but raising spotless eggplant may be an impossible dream. Firmness, however, is attainable. Eggplant tends to soften under refrigeration so pick when you're ready to cook.

I grew some nice eggplant last year, a purple-black, medium-size variety billed in the catalog, a little optimistically, as an ``extra-early'' hybrid. I started seed indoors under fluorescents in early April, transplanted in late May, and picked the first fruit three months later at the end of August. Frost ended the season the first week of October. That gave my wife and I some six weeks to choose from a dazzling international array of recipes featuring eggplant. However you cook it, it's a vegetable well worth growing.

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