Serious Eats

Serious Salad: Summer Squash Ate My Garden

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[Flickr: La Grande Farmers' Market]

My twelfth year, otherwise known as The Year of the Summer Squash, was a bit of an annus horribilis in my personal history. I'd never been Popular, but the first semester of seventh grade I came home every day with my hair and sweater embedded with spitballs. Kids would imitate the way that I talked and walked. When told to stop by a teacher they'd get that outraged middle school look: "I wasn't doing ANYTHING. Just talking to my friend. Just walking down the hall." I grew depressed and withdrawn. After I got a 53 in English the first marking period, my mom decided to pull me out of public school. She sent me to a private school she could ill-afford for the rest of the year.

Expensive Academy was so preppy I looked like I'd been photo-shopped into the hallways. The kids had sleek haircuts and wore gold charm necklaces and played tennis. My hobbies included snarling and rolling my eyes, reading Gothic Victorian novels, plastering my eyes with black kohl and bleaching red streaks in my hair.

Expensive Academy required students to wear uniforms, but stupidly didn't have any regulations about shoes and jewelry, so I wore cheap silver necklaces (or sometimes just interlinked safety pins) around my neck and the wildest footwear I could think of—including hiking boots, bowling shoes and tap shoes on occasion.

For some reason, when the weather of that dark year began to lift, my mother and I decided to plant a proper garden, instead of the one or two tomato plants we usually threw in the soil now and then, to prove we liked living in New Jersey. I got a book on organic farming from the library. In addition to my busy schedule of sulking and experimenting with black nail polish, I helped my mom fertilize, mulch, and choose the seeds for carrots and corn, as well as the young tomato and lettuce plants. And as an afterthought, we decided to throw some summer squash into the mix. Neither of us had ever tasted summer squash, but the book recommended it to new gardeners because of its hardiness.

Well, those of you who have gardens are laughing right now, because you know what happened: after an unusually warm and wet spring, the squash plants began to unfurl in their mighty glory almost as soon as the seeds touched the soil. The one carrot that took root curled up into an inedible knot. The filmy corn shoots cowered in fear in the back, and the tomato plants surrendered, throwing themselves off their stakes like dying men. The leaves of the squash plants shaded all of their competitors from the light. Every day, as if to mock my depression, they produced more bounty: "Life is good!" the yellow fruits seemed to shout. "I just love the world! It's been a productive morning!"

The punchline is that neither my mother nor I could cook back then. My mother had only one way of dealing with vegetables: put a pat of butter on them and sprinkle them with paprika that's been in the cupboard since 1979. The only vegetables I really liked at the time were deep-fried cauliflower and onion rings. My mother was deep in her obsession with The Jane Fonda Workout.

"These are so bland! They taste terrible!" I said, pushing the yellow slices around on my plate. Since we knew nothing about when to harvest plants, we let the squash get large, swollen, and tasteless before picking the fruit, rather than pulling the squashes off when they were tiny and tender.

"I hate for them to go to waste!" said my mother. I flounced up my room to find my secret stashes of Oreos and sour cream potato chips, to re-read Wuthering Heights, not do my homework, and draw tattoos with magic marker on my arms.

"Die, summer squash, die, die," I'd think, in all my Goth glory as I watered the plants at dusk. Then I'd come back in the house, find my mother reading my poetry and rifling through my bedroom and we'd fight.

The squash grew and grew—everyday there were more of them. They piled up, uneaten, reproaching us, a great yellow wall of silent waste.

The not-so-funny punchline is that Expensive Academy eventually sent someone to my home because they were concerned about me: without, incidentally, calling my mother or myself in for a conference first (which would seem more sensible). I remember the social worker as bland and blank-faced with a really, really bad perm. Obviously, she couldn't find anything wrong enough with the house to intervene—I smiled and said that I was fine (realizing that although I often said I hated my mother, saying this to a stranger meant something far different than saying this to my mother in private). I remember showing the woman our garden as well as the spotless grout of the bathroom and the carpets my mother picked free of lint every weekend for fun. "Hello! Nice to see ya!" said the cheerful yellow squash, waved their leaves, and multiplied before my eyes.

As the social worker drove away, I fantasized about throwing the bucket of summer squash I'd picked that weekend into her backseat. There were still many months for summer squash to grow—it was only June.

My mother didn't cry, but I knew she was confused. She didn't understand why I was so angry, so depressed. What was she to do with me—and with all that damned squash?

Needless to say, I did not return to Expensive Academy the next year.

I would like to say that tending the garden became a source of emotional healing and peace. I would like to say that I learned to respect my own imperfections, my mother's imperfections, and the imperfections of Mother Nature. But that sense of peace would only come many years later. The only joy I felt that year came in destroying the garden in the fall—pulling out the hated squash plants.

The funny thing is, now I love summer squash, although it's one of the few things in the world I don't like with butter. I've been eating it quite often this summer, grilled in salads. If only I'd known back then what I know now. If only I'd known how to appreciate all that summer squash.

About the author: Mary Pagones (known as HeartofGlass) eats food, mostly plants, but still worries far too much what she is eating in New Jersey.

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