Squash Stories

zucchiniSeason of summer squash, season of beans. Season of canning kettles and Ball jars, harvest baskets, long evenings around a barbecue. Tomatoes swell and redden, scent of basil stains air. Zucchini grows and grows. The early summer flowers are fading, but the vegetables are coming on strong, and the pantry shelves are filling, with jams and pickled beans. The featured recipe this week blends pickled summer squash with squash fresh from the garden, a kind of culinary and ceremonial bridging of this year and last. It’s always good practice, this time of year, to go through the pantry and take stock of what’s still in there. What you used, what you ran out of, what remains. While most water-bath canned goods are viable for up to 18 months according to the label (and sometimes longer, if you don’t value texture or nutritional value much) the truth is that even preserved, shelf-stable foods are best eaten sooner than later. This recipe, for Grilled and Pickled Summer Squash, with Fresh Herbs and Grilled Feta, is flat out delicious. It’s also a great way to use up the last jars of Pickled Zucchini or Zucchini Relish that may be lurking in the dark corners of the pantry. The long winter is over! Use up the canned goods from last year, to make room for a new season of canning. July is upon us, friends, and the hoarded cases of Ball jars that have gathered dust in the shed are ready, waiting to be washed and filled again.

Karla’s garden is thick with summer squash, dark green and pale green and striped and yellow, the rough tangled vines studded with blazing yellow star shaped flowers that will in time become squash. She started them all from seed, each variety coming in its own small paper packet, emerging in the soil inside the greenhouse with the same two cotyledons atop thick stems. While the family went away on vacation, we came to her garden to harvest the excess zukes. Not just because we wanted more zucchini, and not just to keep the food from going to waste. We harvested in gratitude, yes, but the harvesting was a service too, a way to keep the vines producing strong while she was away. Most annual vegetables are this way. Unlike, say, an apple tree, which makes just one crop of fruit after a single flowering event each year, an annual vegetable has but one year to grow from seed to flower and fruit, and it will continue to flower and set fruit over a longer period of time than apples. The biological imperative of squash (and so many other beings) is to reproduce, and all the leafy, flowering power of the plant is directed toward this ultimate aim. All the flowering, and the fruit itself, is a clever way to ensure the continuation of the squash plant; the squash itself is just a clever way to disperse mature seeds that have passed through the digestive tract of mammals and birds. However, we like to eat zucchini best when the seeds inside are still small and white and immature. When we harvest the plant at this stage, before the seeds have ripened, the plant is encouraged to put out more flowers in the hopes of making more squash seeds. More flowers equal more squash, equals more seeds, equals more squash. And so on, every year, for generations. We interrupt this cycle when we harvest before maturity, but squash endures; not least because zucchini is so good at hiding beneath the raspy leaves, and almost always, we find a gigantic summer squash that has escaped harvest. And more importantly, of course, we have an entire industry of seed saving and harvest, so many wonderful companies that keep strains pure, that package seeds for farmers and home growers alike.

So, we gather the squash, so that squash will continue to produce all the long summer through. We preserve the squash, so we can serve it with fresh grilled squash the next year. We save the seeds from the ones that get away from us, or they come up wild from the compost pile, rambling out of the bin and spreading out over the yard, secure in the cycles of seed and renewal. Those compost pile squash may not be what they seem, though...

Of course, every time sex and mutation are involved (and after all, these some are the main drivers of human evolution) things can get a little wild. Squash is known to be a promiscuous plant, crossing readily between wild and tame, edible and ornamental varieties. We give these mutated compost pile crosses funny names like pumpkini and zumpkin, to signify their origins and their unconventional shapes, but as we recently learned, these wild crosses between cucurbits can have some dangerous side effects. There is actually a syndrome known as Toxic Squash Syndrome, which is caused by an unplanned hybrid squash seedling, aka pumpkini, having elevated concentrations of a bitter compound known as cucurbitacin in the fruit. When ingested, this bitter squash can cause symptoms of Toxic Squash Syndrome, including abdominal pain, dizziness, vomiting, even hair loss! This bitterness is a trait more commonly found in wild cucumber relatives such as the manroot, but it is not too deeply buried in the genetic code of cultivated squash plants, and it will sometimes manifest in the fruit of the accidental seedlings that spring up in the garden or compost pile. Elevated levels of bitterness in these volunteer squash can be a sign that unhealthy levels of cucurbitacin are present, so be cautious about sampling any squash of unknown origin that may pop up in your back yard. Even a few bites can create a problem, but luckily the compounds that cause these effects are easily detected in the bitter flavor of the individual fruits. This effect is most pronounced when edible squash like zucchini is grown in pollinator proximity to ornamental gourds, decorative pumpkins, or wild squash relatives.

Studying the causes and effects of this phenomenon remind us twofold, of the wild danger and possibility that lurk beneath the commonest of garden vegetables, and of the work and dedication it takes to keep seed strains pure. When seed growers grow many varieties of squash in proximity to each other, they have to use all sorts of tricks to prevent pollen transfer between different varieties; closed greenhouses, hand pollination, floating row cover, to name a few. To think of the labor involved, generation after generation, to keep the strains viable, makes that three-dollar package of seed seem all the more miraculous. A deep bow to all the seed savers who have come before us, from the original indigenous farmers to home gardeners and small farmers, and even some larger companies, that have kept heirloom varieties available to the public for so many years. Mother Nature is always innovating, but her random mutations are not always to our liking or the benefit of humanity, particularly. Harnessing the wild potential of nature’s random mutations and directing it in ways that can benefit plant and animal kingdoms, is one of the most profound ways that humans have to impact the environment. This can be done recklessly, or with reverence and intention. In these times, our potential and power has never been more magnified. May we choose to use it wisely, with discernment and an eye toward the continued survival and evolution of all beings, plant and animal alike, that share this exquisite blue green marble with us.