The traumatizing squash

My wife and I have many things in common. We have two happy, healthy, beautiful children who alternately fill both of us with adoration and vexation. I’ve commented briefly on a shared love of fine spirits, and a folie à deux when it comes to confections. We have a common madness when it comes to arcane intellectual pursuits, hence both of us reaching ABD status (“all but dissertation”) in doctorates of obscure humanities disciplines that required study of multiple dead languages (his: Byzantine history, hers: Germanic philology). We both are excited about world travel when somebody else is paying for it (which happens a fair amount when one is undergoing academic training in a discipline where you’re one of 10 people under 50 years old in the entire Western hemisphere who give a damn).

But truly, there is a primal, near-animalistic level on which we connect intimately, that involves heat and sweating and steam and rhythmic, repeated actions and consultation of specialty manuals from Eastern countries for exploration of exotic options and different kinds of oils and special devices and even, occasionally, fruit, and one that after a few hours leaves us both ready to fall asleep afterward, spent, in a state of deep physical gratification. We’re free about doing this in the backyard in the open air sometimes, or at other people’s houses. Sometimes we even allow other people to participate so that they can show us things we never thought possible, which we then incorporate into our repertoire of activities once those people go home.

I’m talking, of course, about cooking.

We’ve cooked together since the earliest stages of our dating relationship, when maybe sometime in the second month that we were going out she got sick, and I went to her house to make her soup. Cooking is not just a thing for us; it goes hand in hand in our house with hospitality. We love to cook, we love to eat, and we love to share our kitchen and our table with others. We’ve cooked many different kinds of foods for ourselves and for other people, for family, for friends, for strangers, for enemies, even. Nobody will ever mistake our house for an upscale restaurant, not with two children and, shall we say, an archival proclivity common to academics. Nonetheless, we’ve bonded with each other and with others over specialty recipes for nachos, home roasted coffee, gourmet vegetarian menus, fresh bread, biscuits and gravy, home churned butter, roast goose, maple oat scones, whole lamb on a spit, and prime rib we’ve dry-aged in the refrigerator. We’ve invited new acquaintances over for dinner on a whim who, next thing we know, are asking to cook us Greek food in our own kitchen. Great, yes, love it, just leave us the recipe. Nothing is too exotic, really, as long as we can find a recipe and the ingredients, and it usually turns out at least edible, most of the time reasonably good, sometimes amazing. It’s not for nothing that when asked, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” I commonly answer, “My house!”

And sometimes, one of us gets it wrong. Usually it’s me.

There was the time, several years ago, I was really excited about trying to make Indian food for dinner. I bought a cookbook, figured out a menu, and went grocery shopping. There was one problem that didn’t strike me as a huge issue at the time; I couldn’t find cardamom pods. Keep in mind that this was before smart phones, this was a little bit before even run-of-the-mill grocery stores had health food and international food aisles, and I had just never heard of cardamom before. Okay, no big deal, I thought to myself. I’ll just buy ground cardamom and I’ll guess.

There was the cherry pie recently where, having wound up previously with a filling that was too liquid, I decided, No worries, I’ll just let it cook a little longer so that it thickens more. I wound up inventing a new kind of hard candy. I think. We’re still figuring out how to get it off the bottom of the saucepan without ruining it. I’ll let you know how it tastes once we’ve gotten that far.

There was the Pad Thai I made where somehow the red pepper flakes all wound up concentrated in the bowl of our friend who had no tolerance whatsoever for spice. Oops.

Like I say, usually it’s me who winds up having a problem cashing the checks my palate wants to write. I’m a decent big picture guy, and I can be a great big picture guy if I force myself to plan a cooking schedule working backwards with the recipes from the intended serving time. Flesh-of-my-flesh has a little more grace, a little more eye for detail, a little finer technique compared to my firehose of good intentions.

But sometimes, just sometimes, she messes up, too.

Not often, to be sure. She is her own worst critic; she will cobble together a number of seemingly random ingredients, put the result in front of you with an embarrassed look on her face and say, “I don’t know what this is,” but it will be delicious nonetheless.

Recently, die Frau had a hankering for steaks. I dutifully set out to do my thing with ribeyes in a cast iron pan accompanied by a blue cheese sauce; the vegetable was up to her. For one reason or another, she decided on zucchini and yellow summer squash. She sliced them up, arranged them in a roasting pan, splashed in some olive oil, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, threw in some fresh chopped mint as a finishing touch, and put it in the oven.

Now, for context, I will own the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of particular kinds of vegetables, and I never have been. As a child I had to stifle a serious gag reflex for everything from peas to avocados. As an adult, it depends on how they’re cooked — meaning, of course, that they need to not taste like vegetables. Cauliflower? There’s a wonderful Lebanese oven-roasted cauliflower recipe that involves olive oil and spices and tahini. Broccoli? I’m partial to an Italian approach that involves sauteing with olive oil, black oil cured olives, and Parmesan cheese. Let’s not even talk about Brussels sprouts, please. It is not for nothing that my wife speaks of my “vegetable crinkle”, the furrowing of my brow that occurs when I am eating veggies that taste like veggies prepared in a stereotypical American fashion. If all you know how to do with vegetables is salt and boil them, please, my friend, let me buy you a cast iron skillet, several heads of garlic, a large can of decent olive oil, and a bottle of wine; we’ll have a nice afternoon of drinking and learning how to make vegetables not taste mushy and bitter and gross.

My uneasy peace is especially pronounced with squashes. As a rule, they need to be accompanied by another vegetable, maybe even something else squashlike— I usually cook zucchini with eggplant, and squash invariably needs to be beaten into submission by zucchini and eggplant and onions and peppers and tomatoes, at the very least. “Ratatouille” and “briami” are French and Greek words that in my mental lexicon mean “The squash is only there for texture, thank God”.

So my wife’s oven-roasted zucchini and yellow squash, to begin with, was a dish that, shall we say, did not have me as the target audience. When it came out of the oven, I tried it, and tasted exactly like what I would expect zucchini and squash to taste like: bad. And that’s okay; at forty, I don’t struggle with a gag reflex anymore (most of the time), so I just manage my expectations, and do what I’ve done since I was six: wolf down what I dislike the most as quickly as I can, so that I can look forward to the rest of the meal rather than dreading the part I’m avoiding.

Except that Megan also took a bite, and I could hear her face falling from across the room. “Oh no,” she said. “That isn’t how I meant it to turn out at all.” She took another bite, and I could sense the tension in the back of her tongue as her mouth tried to keep her from swallowing. “Ugh,” she said. “It’s all mushy.” “It’s fine,” I insisted, scooping up a large pile and putting it on my plate. I thought to myself, Maybe I can just mix it all up with the blue cheese sauce.

And then the kids were struggling with it. Katherine, our seventeen month old, refused to acknowledge its existence. Theodore, at four, was savvy enough to at least move it around on his plate to look like he was doing something with it. He had managed to get down two already, but after that, he would eat his steak, poke and prod the mystery discs of green and yellow, start to put some on a fork, and then put his fork down so that he could talk about Captain America. I knew exactly what he was doing; his mother eventually caught on. Since she didn’t like it any more than he did, she wasn’t unsympathetic, of course, but she still had to be the parent. The result of her inner compromise was to tell him, as she was going down to the basement to change the laundry, “You have to eat least two of the four that are left on your plate.”

As she disappeared down the stairs, Theodore dubiously placed a slice of yellow squash in his mouth. I could see that he was moving it around on his tongue, desperately searching for some field of taste buds where this wouldn’t be agony. The “vegetable crinkle”, apparently a result of genetics, appeared on his own forehead. And, his face tightened, in a way I recognized immediately from my own childhood — he was stifling a gag reflex.

Suddenly I was seized with the paternal desire to give my kid a better childhood than the one I’d had. I immediately swooped in with my fork and ate all the rest of his zucchini and squash. He looked at me, uncomprehending. “It’s okay,” I said. “You’re off the hook.”

And Theodore started to get upset. “No, Mama said I have to eat two! Now I can’t do that!”

“No, it’s all right,” I told him. “I ate them. We just… we just won’t tell Mama that it was me who ate them.”

He started sobbing. “No! Mama has to know! ’Cause she told me to eat them! We can’t not tell her!”

Keep in mind that in my own head, I wasn’t telling him to lie. I was only trying to relieve him of the pressure of having to eat something everybody at the table knew had turned out badly just because he had the misfortune of being the little kid who had to eat his vegetables anyway. I would tell Megan later what had happened, and it wouldn’t be his problem. Nonetheless, whether or not I was trying to take punishment for him, the simple reality to him of what I had done was that I was making him a co-conspirator in a falsehood, and he immediately felt terrible about it.

Theodore ran downstairs crying to meet Megan as she was returning from the laundry. “Mama! Dad ate all of my zucchini and squash!” he wailed. Well, that’s different, I thought to myself.

“So, what happened?” my wife asked me pointedly as she returned to the table. After my awkward recap, she just sighed and said, “Okay. Next time, just tell him not to eat it, and that you’ll talk to me about it.”

“Right,” I said, squirming a bit.

“Well, we’ve all managed to be thoroughly disturbed in one way or another by the vegetables,” Megan declared with defeat, gathering up the plates. “It was a traumatizing squash for everybody.”

Thankfully, ice cream and, a little later, Moscow Mules cleared out the flavor memory for all concerned, and the leftover ribeyes, at least, served as the basis for a tasty, palate-cleansing breakfast of steak and eggs. The plastic container with the remaining zucchini and yellow squash continues to sit, unloved and alone, in the back of our refrigerator. We are contemplating — with great doubt, I must say — whether or not they might be able to be incorporated into a batch of mashed potatoes. Megan says now that it wasn’t the taste so much as the consistency, but that’s a bit like saying that it’s not the heat but the humidity.

It was a swing and a miss for my wife’s otherwise stellar cooking stats, to be sure, but I have to say, it doesn’t hold a candle to the painful memory of Indian dishes encrusted with ground cardamom.