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  • “Toledano, ajo, berenjena”:The Eggplant in Don Quixote
  • Anita Savo

Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605 and 1615), is populated with the practitioners and victims of “tragic identity tricks”, as María Rosa Menocal so insightfully remarked (260). Just as, in the novel, women dress as men, the living feign death, and ordinary people become the protagonists of heroic adventures, the Jews and Moriscos living in Cervantes’s Spain were obliged to masquerade as Christians in order to remain in their homeland. Then as now, culinary traditions played an important role in people’s self-identification with given religious and cultural groups. As Menocal observes:

If Jews and Muslims didn’t look different and yet their differences were crucial, then the reality of it had to be –as Don Quixote never tires of telling us– in a place where it was not visible; it was, no doubt (we can hear Quixote saying so), the work of malicious magicians, in the blood. There were quirks of behavior, of course, but those could be faked, as everyone knew. If you were a crypto-Jew, you would make an art of eating forbidden foods in [End Page 231] public, knowing full well that not to do so would give you away and land you in the Inquisitorial fires. The highly advanced Converso and Morisco art of being able to fake eating like Christians led, eventually, to a Spanish society obsessed with the public and ritualized eating of ham as a display of Christian authenticity.


Indeed, Don Quijote’s love interest Dulcinea has a talent for salting pork that, for Menocal (262–63), Márquez Villanueva (131), and others, signals an overcompensation for a possibly dubious ancestry.

Pork may be the most notable of these politically charged dishes of early modern Spain, but other foods also had symbolic value in social and literary contexts. In Arabic poetry, the names of fruits or flowers were used to convey lofty or laudatory significance on their bearers, while the names of vegetables lent a comic or even pejorative tone (Bencheneb and Marcilly 108). In the Libro de buen amor of Juan Ruiz, the characters Doña Endrina and Don Melón de la Huerta –Lady Sloe and Sir Melon of the Orchard–are paradigmatic examples of this phenomenon in the Castilian tradition. It is not surprising, then, that a man named after a vegetable should appear among the characters of Don Quixote. This man is, of course, Cide Hamete Benengeli, whose last name is reminiscent of badhinjan, the Arabic word for eggplant that produced Romance variants such as Portuguese beringela, French aubergine and Spanish berenjena (Daunay and Janick 16).

To unpack the possible meanings of the eggplant, I will focus not only on its significance as the name of one of the “authors” of the novel, the Arab historian who supposedly first recorded Don Quijote’s story in Arabic writing based on information found in the archives of La Mancha, but also on its appearance in two other episodes in which a fictitious or assumed identity is at stake. As we will see, the eggplant is emblematic of some of the major themes in Don Quixote, including disguise, multiplicity of meanings, and the intertwining of fiction and reality.

Any study on the importance of the eggplant in Don Quixote must take into account the considerable body of work already carried out on the symbolic significance of names in the novel. Leo Spitzer, in his seminal article on linguistic perspectivism in the Quixote, interprets the work’s unstable names [End Page 232] –such as the protagonist’s last name, which is given as Quijada, Quesada or Quijana before eventually being settled as Quijano– and fake etymologies –such as the derivation of Trifaldi from tres faldas– as evidence of the consistent pattern of multiple meanings present throughout the novel:

We may assume that the linguistic perspectivism of Cervantes is reflected in his invention of plot and characters; and, just as, by means of polyonomasia and polyetymologia, Cervantes makes the world of words appear different to his different characters, while he himself may have his own, the coiner’s, view of...


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