Stuffed Eggplant: Hold the Sour Cream!

Sour-cream-free stuffed eggplant from The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food

Part of the fun of the Historical Cooking Project is following recipes as closely as I can, even if I don't think they'll turn out particularly well. I've made boring biryani, sweet spinach pie and a lackluster potato casserole, all in the name of historical research. For this month's recipe, though, I did not follow the directions of the dish I made to the letter; I left out the sour cream.
Simply flipping through The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food shows the importance of sour cream in the cooking of the Soviet republics. Salads, pancakes, meat dishes and desserts all include hefty amounts of what in Russian is called smetana. I, on the other hand, call it disgusting. My childhood avoidance of anything "cold and white" has decreased as I've grown more adventurous in my eating habits -- mayonnaise, for instance, I can tolerate, though only when it is cut by garlic or hot sauce -- but I still can't stand sour cream. 

Moreover, I've taken a fairly ahistorical challenge for the month of January, as I've been attempting to eat only vegan food. Other than a surprise dusting of cheese on a burrito and a taste of chocolate my colleague brought from New Zealand, I've done pretty well in my animal-free experiment (a necessary counterpoint to all of the pork and pastries I ate in Spain last fall). I could have made a substitute sour cream topping out of tofu or cashews, certainly, but I decided that, when food shortages were so widespread during the days of the Soviet Union, the typical cook would not have wasted her time pulverizing cashews for a sour cream substitute. She would simply have done without, until the next time that sour cream (or mushrooms, or eggplants, or rice) were available. After all, the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was a showpiece, a suggestion that all was right in the USSR when, in fact, food shortages were widespread. So, it struck me as accurate to make a recipe missing an ingredient - even if the ingredient in question is an integral part of Russian cuisine.

The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food offers recipes for stuffing various vegetables - zucchini, beets, cabbage and eggplant, including several stuffings both meat-based and vegetarian. While purposeful vegetarianism was rare in the Soviet Union, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food recommends that lunches should be vegetarian (without specifying whether this "meatless" meal should include fish or not). No matter, as Alex had already taken on the canned fish and Carolynn had handled the pickles; I could make a meatless and vinegar-free dish without feeling that I was betraying the mainstays of Soviet cuisine. My rice stuffing had briefly boiled mushrooms, slightly-too-dark fried onions, and tomato paste to bulk it up. While I left out the cup of sour cream that the recipe for stuffed eggplant called for, I did make a tomato sauce full of onion, carrot and parsnip. The recipe asked me to strain out the vegetables once they were cooked, which resulted in a sauce oddly similar to canned tomato soup. No matter; the rice stuffing needed a bit of a boost. Most of the recipes in The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food call for butter as the cooking fat of choice; I replaced this with rather un-Soviet coconut oil, because it's what I had in my presently animal-product free arsenal. Again, this wasn't accurate to the recipe, but it made this simple stuffed eggplant surprisingly tasty.

Would this dish look more attractive if I'd covered it in sour cream? 
To be able to choose to eat vegan meals for a day, a month, or for life, whether out of a desire to improve one's own health or in support of animal welfare, is an incredible privilege. Admitting that I am attempting to eat vegan for the month, ordering soy lattes and scrutinizing ingredient lists makes me feel a bit like the subjects of Overheard at Whole Foods. It's important to realize the privilege inherent in all of our food choices - that I have the choice to avoid sour cream because I think it's gross, or to give up eating meat because I can still afford to nourish myself adequately without it. I am not avoiding meat because I can't afford to eat it, nor am I avoiding dairy due to an allergy. My privilege in choosing from a wide variety of foods -- even being able to go to another grocery store in my city to avoid settling for bruised eggplants or non-organic mushrooms -- separates me from the audience of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food. It also separates me from many Canadians, particularly those living in remote northern communities where access to tasty and healthy food is limited. The fact that I can make the choice to give up animal products for a time and know that I'm still assured of sound nutrition because of my time availability, income, and food supply makes me pretty fortunate in global terms. Reading The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was, for me, a reminder of the bounty of food choice that I so often take for granted. If you're avoiding meat, dairy, or even just sour cream, you can make this stuffed eggplant without feeling that you're missing out. I might try this recipe again after my month of veganism is over with the baked sour cream topping, though, just to try to expand my own palate. 

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