An affection for eggplant
Sept./Oct. 2010 California Country magazine
Story and photos by Ching Lee
Retired produce inspector enjoys second career as a farmer.
Placer County farmer Gordon Poulsen and his wife Brenda grill up some eggplant from their farm in Penryn. The former produce inspector has taken up farming in his retirement and grows a variety of eggplants, along with other fruits and vegetables.
As a former produce inspector for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Gordon Poulsen used to be the judge of whether fruits and vegetables made the grade.
Now retired, he is returning to his roots and redirecting his passion to the land. On a small farm in Penryn, a half-hour outside of Sacramento, Poulsen is enjoying his second career growing some of the very commodities he once handled on other farms, including one of his favorites, the eggplant.
His father started farming the Placer County property in 1959, growing mainly pears and plums. As a youngster, Poulsen helped out on the ranch but later went to work for the state. He never lost his connection to farming though.
"I always did have a fairly large garden and an affinity to plant things that our inspectors inspected, like apples and kiwifruit and all the vegetables," he said. "I also gained a real appreciation for what the farmers have to go through to raise a crop and make it look and taste good."
Although his family has been growing eggplant for many years, Poulsen said it was never a commercial venture until recently. He initially grew it in his garden just so he could have a fresh supply for himself.
Before it grows into a glossy fruit, the eggplant puts out striking purple flowers.
"Then I found there was a niche at the farmers market and that other people also appreciate good, fresh eggplant," he said.
But this appreciation has been slow to cultivate with mainstream consumers, he acknowledged. Even though eggplant is hugely popular among foodies and other culinary diehards, who are also some of his biggest customers at the farmers markets where he sells his produce, Poulsen said many others are clueless about what to do with this specialty vegetable—aside from making the traditional eggplant Parmesan.
"There are a lot of people who are new to eggplant and know nothing about it. So many of them are naïve about how to prepare eggplant," he said.
Gordon Poulsen and his grandson Brandon harvest an Asian variety of eggplant called Ichiban, which is long and slender with deep-purple skin.
Known in some parts of the world as aubergine, the eggplant reportedly got its name long ago when white, egg-shaped varieties were more common, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These varieties are still available, along with others that come in different shapes and colors.
The plant is native to India and Pakistan but is widely grown in other countries, including the United States. China and India are the top producers, with Egypt, Turkey and Japan rounding out the top five. In the United States, Georgia, Florida, California, New Jersey and New York lead in eggplant production.
Brenda Poulsen, with daughter Cindy and grandson Gavin, show off the family's fruits of labor.
Every fall, the Loomis Eggplant Festival, which is celebrating its 23rd year in October, boosts the profile of the vegetable by educating consumers about everything eggplant, including exposing them to different eggplant varieties and an array of eggplant dishes.
Poulsen said the annual event, which often draws thousands of attendees, has also increased the demand for eggplant. This is in spite of the fact that eggplant is not a major crop in Placer County, which is more renowned for its mandarin oranges and makes its top agricultural dollars from rice.
The majority of the state's eggplants are actually grown in Fresno, Riverside and Stanislaus counties. The southern coast of Orange County also grows its share.
Even so, Poulsen said Placer County's higher elevation and cooler temperatures make for a slower growing process that adds intricacies to his product—and his customers notice.
To take advantage of the growing niche market for eggplant, Poulsen said he is expanding his production and now grows four different eggplant varieties. There's the classic Black Beauty, the more common variety found in grocery stores, with its purplish-black skin and oval shape. The majority of his plantings, however, are devoted to three Asian varieties, which tend to be long and slender and favored for having thinner skin and fewer seeds.
Gordon Poulsen demonstrates a secret grilling technique using sprigs of rosemary with oil and vinegar that brings out the flavor of eggplant. Along with grilled eggplant, Poulsen's family also enjoys eggplant Parmesan.
While the Black Beauty remains a favorite for baking and frying, Poulsen said Asian varieties such as the Ichiban are becoming more popular among farmers market patrons and often outsell the more traditional varieties.
One of his favorite ways to prepare eggplant is to grill it. He said the Asian varieties work best because of their thin skin. His trick for grilling those is to cut the eggplant lengthwise, dip a fresh sprig of rosemary in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and then use the rosemary as a basting brush while grilling the eggplant.
"Just by rubbing the rosemary brush over the eggplant with the oil and vinegar, you're taking the flavor of that rosemary and infusing it into whatever it is you're grilling, in this case eggplant," he said. "This is a chef's secret that probably not many people do or know about."
He recommends choosing eggplants that are firm with deep color and no mushy spots, which usually indicate they are not as fresh.
Between working his farm and selling his produce at three farmers market locations during the summer, Poulsen says his days are pretty tied up, especially for someone who's supposed to be retired.
But he doesn't do it alone. Poulsen acknowledged the farm is more a family affair than a solo venture, and during harvest, even his young grandsons are out there helping to pick his many fruits of labor.
"If I didn't like what I'm doing, I wouldn't be doing it, and I do," he said.
Each fall, the Placer County town of Loomis takes on a distinctive purple hue in celebration of the eggplant.
Sponsored by the Loomis Basin Chamber of Commerce, this year's Loomis Eggplant Festival is set for Oct. 2, 2010, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The annual event features a wealth of eggplant-themed activities, including arts and crafts, art walk, wine garden and live entertainment—along with plenty of eggplant dishes, of course.
For more information, visit www.loomischamber.com.
Gordon and Brenda Poulsen frequently grill the eggplant they grow on their Placer County farm. Eggplant Parmesan is another family favorite.
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.