On a table in my house sits what most people, including my entire extended family, find quite bizarre, something they cannot align with what they know of me. After all, I pride myself on being an ecological gardener who tries to consider the impact of my actions on all the inhabitants of the garden, not just the human sort. I work to restore shrub-land bird habitat and wildlife corridors on the acres we steward, and in this column I yammer on and on about leaving the wild to the wild. And yet, there on that table sits an antique bell jar and inside that bell jar sit seven stuffed songbirds of Vermont. Go figure.
Indeed, the bell jar looks as though it belongs in St. Johnsbury’s Fairbanks Museum, not on my table—perhaps once upon a time, it did live there. I picked it up at an antique shop in Vergennes years ago much to my children’s horror and my husband’s disbelief. I am the oddity, they claim, and should be put under glass.
Okay, so it’s a bit odd. I keep the bell jar because it reminds me of the year I spent as a child prowling in wonderment through the strange collections at the university museum in the English city where we lived, a museum puffed with plunder hauled back from the four corners of the earth: necklaces made from tiny hummingbirds, clothing adorned by bones and feathers, boxes inlaid with butterflies and shells. It reminds me of lessons about imperialism and greed and human shortsightedness and willful ignorance. It reminds me to be fully aware, to look at the natural world every day in true wonder as though for the first time.
But truth be told, I also bought it because I have a thing for oddities in Nature—not for the Ripley’s Believe It or Not carnival freak show sorts of anomalies. Not for the distortions and aberrations of Nature gone awry—the big-as-the-moon double tomatoes or deformed eggplants much as I gape at them in The Garden Game photos. No, as a gardener I’ve collected and sought out the unusual within the usual, the extraordinary within the ordinary. I seek out varieties that seem strange simply because they are unfamiliar.
When I travel, I scour the food markets for what’s the norm there but new to me—at the San Francisco farmers’ market recently, I found all sorts of surprises from the Asian culinary world: leafy branches (the leaves are sour, an eager customer explained) and ridged gourds and vegetables and fruits I didn’t have the first clue as to identity or use. How intriguing! My first thought was whether I could grow them here and how I might use them in my cooking—what they would teach me about the wide world within the small space of my Vermont garden and kitchen.
To marvel and to learn is why each morning for the past weeks I’ve checked on the welfare of the new members of the cast of my garden characters: three striking Italian vegetables, curiosities only because I have never seen or even imagined bright pink cauliflower, a 45-pound torpedo of a winter squash or a supremely warty and weighty (25-pound) green pumpkin. Odd as they seem to me and to anyone who comes to my garden for a look, they are common in Sicily where my daughter’s boyfriend’s family gardens. When they sent me the seeds, I was delighted—something I have never grown or even seen! How would they fare? How would they taste? Could they add welcome, healthful variety to our New England table?
I stare at them, wondering if it’s “normal” to look like that. Wondering if our local bugs and critters will nibble at them. Wondering when I should harvest them. Wondering how you actually cook a 45-pound squash that is three feet long and nine inches wide. It truly is extraordinary—beyond belief: a sprawling plant to support a single gargantuan fruit that could play a starring role in a tale about hungry giants.
According to my research, my 45-pound zucca lunga di Napoli can weigh in at more than 30 kilos (!) and has orange, sweet and perfumed flesh rich in minerals and vitamin C. What’s not to love about that! Sold in slices at the Sicilian markets, it is used in ravioli, gnocchi, and soup —and so I will slice it up, cook and freeze it for kitchen sojourns to southern Italy all winter long. The dense zucca marina di Chioggia is also sliced, and sometimes grilled right in the open market, dressed with olive oil and salt and sold as snacks. How’s that for fast food? Its sweet, dry flesh is prized by the northern Italians, and now I have it growing in my northern New England garden! What’s more, it is known to be an excellent keeper—could these be my new favorite squash varieties? And the pink cauliflower? It is delicious roasted in the Sicilian way, mild tasting and retaining a bit of pinkness which looks lovely on the plate. It truly does.
Extending my repertoire this way keeps gardening a mystery, cooking an astonishment, and makes for some great stories. Now that it is October, I’m starting to think about which part of the world to travel to next year through garden and kitchen: Turkey? Laos? Ghana?—exploring without plundering, encountering the rich diversity of this astounding world without leaving home, collecting the oddities while tasting the treats.
Also published in The Addison Independent.