The Brave and the Crazy 

To be a specialty food entrepreneur, you need big ... eggplants.

You have to be brave or crazy to become an entrepreneur; everyone knows that. Especially when it comes to creating and marketing a specialty food product -- what with most American refrigerators already overflowing with various spreads and dips and condiments. Nonetheless, every day another brave or crazy person comes along, certain that they will defy the odds and make an easy million off an ancient family recipe.

In addition to the usual delusions that one needs to start a business: confidence, energy, and the naive faith that your popular holiday rum cake or poppy seed marinade is actually the world's best, it takes eggplant-sized cojones to take a vegetable that most Americans hate and hope to transform it into a product people love.

After all, the vegetable world isn't all that different from the human world. Just as in high school or the pages of celebrity magazines, some vegetables are considered hip and trendy and ever-so-happening, while others are perennially dorky and get slammed into lockers on a regular basis. Tomatoes are sexy, juicy, and always popular. And corn: Fresh from the sun-dappled fields of Brentwood, grilled corn smeared with sweet butter is better than even the most spine-tingling sex. Then there are those vegetables regarded as losers, has-beens. Celery. Beets. Okra. Occasionally such vegetables can be redeemed. In 2002, for instance, everyone detested the stinging nettle. But now the angry weed is found in soups, salads, and teas, having blossomed into the "it" vegetable of 2003 by some stroke of divine luck.

Entrepreneur Gary Forbes believes he knows another vegetable on the cusp of breaking out and taking center stage. It has verve, poise, earthy attitude. You either like it or you can't stand it -- the Neil Young of the vegetable world. Yes, it's the eggplant. When prepared correctly, eggplant is sublime. The problem is, most people have never had it prepared correctly. Usually it just lays there limply in the pan, beaten down and smothered in greasy Parmesan muck.

Forbes well understands how people could misunderstand the aubergine. "Many people haven't had it prepared correctly," he says. Since 1998, when he bought the company his family started in 1985, Forbes has made it his mission to turn on the world to the potential of the eggplant. The controversial purple vegetable is the main ingredient for his product, Cowboy Caviar.

The headquarters for Cowboy Caviar is a small office in Emeryville, although the product itself is made in Stockton. Forbes, a man of middle age with a pleasant face and a shock of white hair, seemed a little puzzled, albeit pleased, when asked to be interviewed. "Sure," he says politely, "I just don't know exactly what to say about it." Like anyone who owns a small business, he looks alternately anxious and happy whenever the phone rings. Although a few stores carry Cowboy Caviar, including the Pasta Shop in Berkeley, the small, attractive jars most often end up in gift baskets given to salespeople and newlyweds.

Forbes didn't invent the savory spread himself. "My sister Gale used to make it and people loved it," he says. "She got the recipe from her mother-in-law, who was Russian." Some say the vegetable dish has its roots in the Jewish communities of Russia. Wherever it hails from, recipes for it are legion on the Internet. Forbes did what foodies have been doing for centuries: he took a recipe, tweaked it here and there, and made it his own. According to him, it is now the best.

Forbes' product is eggplant- and tomato-based. There are now six different flavors of Cowboy Caviar and three marinara sauces, all from his own recipes. The flavors include the Classic Original appetizer spread; the Southwest Spread, a piquant blend of vegetables with a hint of jalapeño; and the Black Olive Mediterranean Spread.

When people try it, they love it. A badly mimeographed press release has assorted quotes from satisfied customers: "Gentlemen: recently some friends brought us the ultimate gift, a taste sensation we'd not met before. It's your wonderful Vegetable Caviar and we have looked in vain for a local purveyor so we can buy some more!" Yet another pleased client offers this sincere and heartfelt testimonial: "I left it in the cupboard, eyeing it every now and then, wondering what to do with it. That was a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, while polishing off a piece of lasagna, I got it out. Read the label on how to enjoy this treat and realized upon tasting it, that your final suggestion, right out of the jar, was the best." People just starting out with their own businesses would kill to have fan letters like these.

Apparently, people who had assumed they had no use for the large purple vegetable are often surprised and, yes, a little mortified when they realize that they've been unknowingly enjoying the food of their nightmares. It's the culinary equivalent of waking up with a stranger after an indiscriminate drunken spree. When asked whether people are surprised when they find out its main ingredient is eggplant, Forbes laughs modestly. "Some are," he admits. "Children especially."

Forbes opens a small refrigerator and pulls out an assortment of Cowboy Caviar and a package of crackers. "You really should try some," he insists. He doesn't have to ask twice. Forbes puts the assortment on his desk. "They're all different," he says, between bites. After sampling them all, it's difficult to decide which one is the best. The Classic Original appetizer spread is very good and would be a welcome addition to any spaghetti sauce that needs a bit of eggplant-based oomph. The Moroccan Style Vegetable Spread has a wonderful cumin edge, while the California Caponata tastes of Italian spices and green olives. The Southwest Spread, a piquant blend of vegetables with a hint of jalapeño, has a nice spicy bite.

It's nice to see the forgotten eggplant in such a flattering light, even if it does get a lot of help from the tomato.

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