It is squash season. I planted our patch in the spring, from leftover packets of seed I found in the garden basket in the mudroom. They were extras from the year before, February dreams we never followed through with, little packets of possibility languishing.
I read the descriptions: Tromboncino Zucchini Rampicante—Unlike other zucchinis, the packet read. Shaped like half size curvy trombones. At 60 days you can pick tromboncinos as summer squash, wait 90 days for winter squash. Delicious steamed, grilled, or sliced raw in salad or—the Italians use it in gnocchi and to stuff ravioli. Yes, I thought. You will do.
Beneath the tromboncinos I dug up an unopened packet of Hubbards, the pale grey-blue giants that New Englanders store all winter long. Close your eyes and you would think you were eating cake, pronounce the seed catalogs. Each squash will feed a large family—the fruits average 15 to 20 pounds. You too, blue giant. I want you.
Finally I found the prize: the Rouge Vif D’Etampes nestled at the bottom, only six seeds in the envelope. These were the squash I’d been hunting—the big, deep orange Cindarella pumpkins I buy each year from David Light at the Orleans Farmers Market in the fall. I wanted to grow my own.
In March I took the seed packets out to the garden. The ground was still frosty, but last year we’d cobbled three old windows and a mess of boards into a cold frame, and when I propped them open the dirt was warm. I shoveled compost into three hills, one beneath each window square. Winter squash are heavy feeders, the books always say. There’s a reason we find them volunteering around the edges of the chicken coop. I made holes, dropped the seeds in, patted them down.
Four months later the garden is a riot of squash vines. The prickly stems run through the lettuce patch, over the black raspberries, into the radishes and sugar snaps. They have erupted up and out of the cold frame, up and over the fence, out and down a hill, across the lawn. There are two green, curvy tromboncinos. There are three small blue Hubbards, swelling by the day. There’s one modest Rouge Vif D’Etampes Pumpkin, and then there is the one.
The one—the giant ruddy orange Cindarella pumpkin—outshines them all. She is 35 pounds, maybe 40, suspended above the cold frame like a mirage. She rests in a hammock made from an old cotton tank top tied to a teepee of support poles. I check every morning, worried that a high wind or a heavy rain or the inquiries of a rabbit will knock her down. I cannot bear to lose this triumph of a squash, the potential of her beauty and all that food.
One morning I discover I’ve lost one of the Hubbards. I find it on the ground beneath a leaf, barely blushing blue, unripe. Not the Cindarella, I mutter, thank you. But what could I do with this 3-pounder, still green but worthy in its own right?
I start reading. Treat it like a summer squash, the articles all say. That night I cut it into rounds, skin on, and batter the pale green-orange flesh with flour, eggs, and bread crumbs. I fry them in olive oil and top them with marinara and mozzarella. Kids and grown ups devour them at the kitchen table in the dark.
The next morning I walk out to the garden. The mirage is still there, orange and ribbed and another day closer the one hundred and five it must survive to get ripe. Don’t fall, I whisper. But I know now we’ll still eat if it does.