The Squash: An Appreciation

October 23, 2008

In these waning days of the Evanston farmer’s market—my first active participation in the wonder that is buying fresh, local foods (other than tagging along back in Louisville)—I feel like I need to offer it a thanks of some kind. It’s not because you ease my conscience (or try to, at least). No, the best way I can think of is to say, “Without you, Evanston Farmers’ Market—without you and your wonderful array of growers and sellers and musicians who were perfectly willing to make fun of me for thinking 9 am was early on a Saturday but then help me pick out the perfect pie pumpkin, or round down on the weights—I would never have discovered the wonder that is the squash.”

Of course, it’s more complicated than just “the squash.” Butternut, buttercup, acorn, gooseneck—the question isn’t where to begin, but where to end. Baked, stuffed, soupified, pied, roasted. As a side, an entrée, an appetizer, a dessert.

For a long time, I disliked squash. The lady who watched my brother and me when we were little and both my parents were at work lived on a small farm in Shelby County with her husband. (Some of my most vivid memories of toddlerhood are going to that farm to pretend like we were helping Art with the fields—even growing up in the suburbs, I had a chance to “play at” farming as a child, for which I will always be grateful.) Every fall, they brought over a basket of vegetables for us. Most of it was squash. And I would dread the meals where squash—sliced, steamed, grilled—was served on the side. It was mushy. Like all vegetables to a six-year-old, flavorless. And an odd yellow-beige.

Eventually, I discovered at restaurants that you could prepare a meal based on the squash. But I thought this was just a skill you developed after years of cooking and experimenting. It would take an extraordinary amount of talent—and I didn’t (and don’t yet) have it.

Until this fall, when I showed up at 8:30 in the morning one Saturday and saw a basket of butternut squashes. And then, the next week, the acorns. And then buttercups. They were more than just the bland-looking things of my memory. They looked like Autumn—and they tasted like it too: rich, hearty, warming, as many-flavored as the scent of falling leaves.

We’ve had good times and bad times, squash.  Cooking backs-together with one of my best friends; giving me something to take my mind off the pain of listening to a presidential debate.  We won’t talk about that time I tried to stuff you with mushrooms, though.  (Seriously, I’m still sorry about that one — forgive me, please.)  And to your everlasting credit, unlike my mint plant, you’ve never tried to take over my apartment.

So here’s to you, humble squash. Tonight, when I try not to slice off one of my fingers while cutting open a soon-to-be-a-pie pumpkin, I’ll be cooking in your honor.

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