When I lived in Washington, D. C., some 20 years ago, I used to frequently visit The Alice Pike Barney Studio House, a curious stucco-clad museum on Massachusetts Avenue. The Spanish Revival Style townhouse had been the home of a somewhat racy hostess and artist who surrounded herself with painters, sculptors, and the like, many of whom were likely most attracted by her millions. Some of the money came from her whiskey-distiller father and the rest via her late husband, a railway-car manufacturer. Though largely forgotten today—the house-museum, an extraordinary place, was cruelly sold to Latvia, which now uses it as its embassy—the eminent Mrs. Barney was a major mover and shaker in the Washington art world and deserves to be more admired than she is. But that civic reputation pales beside her position as the mother of Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972), a dashing lesbian poet and playwright who cut a wide swath in European literary circles and left dozens of broken hearts in her considerable amatory wake.
Known as the Amazon for her blonde beauty, Barney lived glamorously, wrote flamboyantly, and romanced women in a manner than can only be called swashbuckling, from painter Romaine Brooks to literary niece Dolly Wilde. (Her mother, predictably enough, was horrified, and was scandalized by her daughter’s Sapphic poetry.) She and Alice B. Toklas were good friends, and when time came for Toklas to publish her famous cookery book, she included a few of Barney’s spécialités de la maison. I tried one of them recently, a side dish called Stuffed Egg Plant with Sugar. This is one of my favourite vegetables, and the directions looked absolutely unchallenging. I was a bit wrong on that score. Have you ever tried to scoop out the insides of an eggplant without damaging the lustrous purple skin? It is not particularly easy. Once that is completed, however, the rest is smooth sailing, culinarily speaking. The only thing I would change about the recipe is to (a) toss the mixture of eggplant and breadcrumbs with a bit of olive oil to moisten it before baking and/or (b) to evenly distribute the butter across the entire surface of the eggplant-and-breadcrumb mixture rather than plopping it in the center as directed. As for the sugar, it adds a pleasant sweetness.
STUFFED EGG PLANT WITH SUGAR
SOURCE: Natalie Clifford Barney, as reprinted in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book by Alice B. Toklas (Anchor Books, 1960)
SERVES 4 PERSONS
2 egg plants
1/4 pound dried breadcrumbs
2 dessertspoons sugar [a little less than 2 tablespoons by US standards — I made a mistake in the post earlier by stating 4 heaping tablespoons and have corrected this]
1 large pinch of salt
Pepper to taste
Divide the egg plants in half lengthwise. Remove the pulp, chop, [place in a large mixing bowl], add breadcrumbs, sugar, salt, and pepper. Stuff the four halves very abundantly [and place on a cookie sheet]. On each half place a piece of butter the size of a large walnut and 1 tablespoon of water and cook in a moderate oven [350 degrees Fahrenheit] for 1/2 hour [or until golden brown on top].