Despite growing up in a small place, I think I’ve always had an urban sensibility. The bustle and verve of city life rosies my cheeks — it vivifies! it uplifts! (It makes me use verbs like “vivify” and “uplift.”) In the city, the mundane is the urbane: I love to keep the pace of the sidewalk queue during rush hour, to judge how much I should buy at the market by how much I am willing to carry home on foot, to not know the names of my neighbors but to say hello to them anyways. It’s an anonymous life, but a stirring one; it works for me. In fact, I love it.
Meanwhile, they call northeastern Connecticut the “Quiet Corner.” Ostensibly, there isn’t much going on there. Of course, there is a lot of agriculture — people growing mushrooms and milking cows, selling pumpkins and autumn-hued mums on the side of the road, things like that. It’s rustic. Peaceful. A sylvan escape. It’s heavy on the beauty, despite being a little short on the verve.
It’s where I went to college. And grad school.
I transferred to the University of Connecticut after having spent my freshman year of college living in Chicago where my tenth-story bedroom window looking out to the Sears Tower, just a few blocks away. Retreating to Connecticut was a change of pace, and admittedly, I didn’t love Storrs. I appreciated it, and I appreciate it still (a gift of nostalgia, no doubt), but it was harder for me to quarry a niche there. It was less automatic.
And then, part-way through my first semester, I discovered Sara’s Pockets. There was something about this place that was out of the ordinary, that is out of the ordinary still. I had never been to a falafel shop before. What was a falafel anyways? When I entered the cumin-scented space, Sara was in the back kitchen, chopping vegetables and singing in a language I didn’t understand. Meanwhile, Samir was waiting by the counter to help me order. “You’re welcome! You’re welcome!” he said, over and over — a delicious little recitation. He must have said it 25 times: “You are welcome.” He said it instead of “Okay” and in place of “Umm.” He said it when he hadn’t been thanked. It was clear that I was — simply — welcome.
“Baba ghanouj?” he had asked. I didn’t know what this was, so I said, “No, thanks.” It looked kind of lumpy. Viscid, and likely replete with ingredients with which I was unfamiliar. He repeated, “Baba ghanouj,” and took a piece of flatbread, covered it in a crest of the stuff, and handed it to me. “You’re welcome!” I ate from the tree, and found knowledge.
I ended up bringing a pint of the stuff home with me. He put it in a little brown paper bag and then placed a wax envelope of complimentary baklava on top. “Try that too.” He smiled. He winked. As I left the shop, he welcomed me once more.
I walked back to my dorm, the “Quiet Corner” abounding as a backdrop of insidious green hills and empty, rolling sidewalks — an abject Arcadia. But I was full — and I was welcome.
Yield: About 3 cups
- 2 medium to large eggplant
- 1/3 cup tahini paste
- 1 lemon, zested and juiced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, cilantro, or oregano, chopped
- Olive oil to serve (optional)
- Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Wash your eggplant and puncture them a few times with a fork.
- If you have a gas range, turn it on high and carefully char the eggplant on the flame for about 5 minutes. (If your range is electric, no worries, just skip this step. The char will make the eggplant smoky.)
- Place the eggplant on a baking sheet and cook until they’re soft. A sharp knife should pierce through the flesh without resistance.
- Let the eggplant cool, then split them open and remove the skin.
- Put the eggplant “meat” in a bowl with the other ingredients and combine until smooth with an immersion blender (alternatively, you can use a food processor or a good-quality blender).
- Drizzle your serving with some extra virgin olive oil, if you’d like, and serve with crisp veggies or pita.
Note: Don’t throw away the eggplant skin! Drizzle it with some tahini, sprinkle it with the last drops of your lemon wedge, and enjoy!