The Hillman and Zucchini
The spring the coalmine laid my Grandfather Nichols off permanently, left this hale, active sixty year old man with too much time on his hands. He took care of this lack by finding ways to fill the freezer and pantry for the long winter dearth of fresh provender.
He took me as a partner to walk the steep slope from one of our favorite raspberry patches shortly after he got his “pink” slip. When he stopped, I watched him study his tidy farm, with its neat house, the car he’d paid off just in case a day came when he had no regular pay check. Dad had finished spring plowing for both families. Pap and studied the rich loam fields from the hillside and I could nearly hear his busy mind clicking. Dad had situated Grammy and Pap’s small garden near their backdoor so Grammy could walk out and pick the produce they planted: fresh lettuce, scallions, tomatoes, corn, and cabbage well into the autumn.
Beyond the acres of field corn and alfalfa that would fill silos as winter feed for the stock, that Dad had plowed, laid our one luxury crop. On a rich acre of flat land along the Big Creek, we carefully spaced strawberry plants, counting on the Farmers’ Almanac not to lead us astray. A late frost meant losing precious plants we couldn’t afford to replace.
I just could imagine that wonderful brain of his pumping out ideas as Pap considered the small garden by his house. Suddenly he grinned. He saw potential: a project. We hiked back to the house and for the next couple of weeks, he covered the big pedestal table in the living room with research materials. He combed seed catalogues, studied his materials, dug through encyclopedias and dictionaries. He plotted a course, made notes, figured acreage, fertilizing techniques, and watering rotations, focusing his formidable intelligence on a new adventure. He may only have finished eighth grade, but his appetite for knowledge had substituted that formal education, enabling him to persuade my father to plow more land. He did argue with Pap about the unusual plants he wanted to put in the ground.
Dad said, “Look, Walt, go with what we know. We ain’t none of us heard of this stuff—just plant a different kind of tomato, maybe, or a hardier string bean” Dad’s suggestion was reasonable.
My granddad, a man of few words, just held his notes, diagrams, and drawings under his arm, got in Dad’s truck and stuck his head out the window, “You comin’ to the feed store with me or you just gonna stay here scratchin’ where the sun don’t shine?”
The first summer, Pap introduced the folk on Rush Run, Ohio, who thought French fries exotic, to a strange crop of kohlrabi. His mischievous grin encouraged people to try grating the odd looking stem with their cabbage as they made slaw.a href=”https://violettabeganit.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/kohlrabi-3.jpg”>
“Go on, Mae” he urged my tiny grandmother as she frowned at a pile of the pale green “things” on her kitchen table. “Ya know, the people in Kashmir eat Koler-rabby four or five times a week. They eat it like we eat tomatoes when they’re ripe and ready.”
Sitting by the wood burning oven, making sure to put wood in when the thermometer on the side wavered, I listened raptly. I’d find out where Kashmir was later. Grammy pursed her lips and shook her head, “Well, good for them. You suppose they sent anybody this way to tell me how to cook these things? I bet them Kashmir people eat missionaries, too,” she grumbled.
I loved Pap’s deep laugh. “Oh, I reckon they don’t. They’re mainly vegetarian thata way.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “What is that big word? It ain’t nice to make others look stupid.”
He hugged her, towering over her, rubbing her back gently, “Oh, I ain’t tryin’ to make you look stupid. I’m tryin’ to make Tawny look things up!” He winked slyly at me. He knew me very well.
He held my 5’2” grandmother at arms’ length and said gently, “A vegetarian don’t eat meat. I bet they’d love your pie, though. You go ahead and grate this up and pour your slaw dressin’ over it, then keep the oven ready. Tawny and I’ll go pick you enough black raspberries that you can make us so many fresh raspberry pies that them folk over in Kashmir would be real sorry if they knew what they was missin’”
Mae Nichols, in her fifties, looked up at her 6’1” husband of over forty years and blushed. I thought, No wonder—he’s just like a movie hero!
As his berry-picking buddy, I had gained status in my family. Canning fruit or making jelly, jam and preserves did not hold first priority with Mom and Grammy. They had to concentrate on providing staples for the coming winter: vegetables, soup stocks, root crops that would go in the dark cellar. They cultivated only strawberries; we combed the hills for all other fruit. Mom and Grammy bought sugar during the winter any time it came on sale. They saved jars, scrubbed the labels off with fanatic insistence, and tucked paraffin wax away. The process of making the high treats for toast or biscuits on cold winter mornings took military-like planning. Pap and I served as foot soldiers.
“This girl knows how to pick berries!” Pap declared after we’d been paired the first time. We had one crucial rule when we picked the wild berries growing over the acres of hillside my grandparents owned: go in pairs. Besides the danger of serious injury due to a fall, the ever-present hazard of poisonous copperhead snakes lurked. Pap’s success as a picker amazed everyone. While most of us took one pail (usually a paint can, scrupulously scrubbed, then fitted with a long cord to loop over the shoulder to free the picker’s hands), Pap took a literal milk pail and came back with it brimming. He instinctively knew where the best patches were, and the fastest way to get to them. He didn’t like to chat, and he fought for every berry, never putting even one in his mouth.
He soon realized I obviously had inherited that particular Nichols’ gene as I plunged gamely into thickets, after using my climbing stick to make sure no snake had snuggled in for a nap. I concentrated on picking the plump, juicy little berries, dark purple, tiny spheres clumped together to make a lovely whole. It took a careful technique to get at the base of the berry and pop it off the stem, not putting pressure on the fruit itself, or it would burst leaving the picker with nothing but stained fingers. I loved this nuanced battle for the fruit guarded by briars, long, thorn covered stems that dragged at sleeves, trousers, scratching any exposed skin. My hands looked as if I fought mutant cats that bled purple blood during berry season.
“Nice work, Kiddo,” Pap said after our first partnering.
Amazing words of praise from this taciturn man!
As we walked back to the house, Pap said, “I hear you’re a reader.”
“Yeah,” I answered cautiously, as my parents didn’t like my obsession with books.
“Got one you might like.”
“Okay,” I hid a grin. I didn’t care what the book was. If Pap gave it to me, it was sanctioned!
He handed me a small book about three inches thick with onion skin pages I associated with bibles. I had to open it to discover the title and author: Ben Hur by Lew Wallace.
Pap had ridden as a cowboy in Montana at age fifteen, served as a Marine through WWI deployed to Haiti as part of the off shore reconnaissance patrol; he had worked deep pit bituminous coal mines before unionization, and told us stories around the stove in a raspy, hoarse voice. But he had never acknowledged me as more than one of the group of grandkids. With the gesture of handing me that book, Pap had invited me into his world of adventure.
So, the crisp, tangy taste of kohlrabi became a summertime treat, along with Grammy’s astonishing raspberry pie. I loved to bring a stalk of the strange vegetable in warm from the sun, strip away the leaves, wash it in the spring water that drained into Grammy’s sink, then eat it raw with salt. Savoring the crunch I pictured a country in the far north of India, surrounded by Pakistan, Tibet, China and bits of the USSR. Mountains soared in a bright blue sky; the people ate kohlrabi with relish, the way folks on Rush Run consumed corn on the cob.
Pap’s introduction of zucchini flopped the first season he planted the ubiquitous squash. He liked to say the word. “In England, them Limeys call ‘em ‘cor-jets’. Now why take a perfectly good Eye-tal-yun word and Frog-ga-fy it? I just don’t understand!”
He also didn’t understand that he should pick the squash when it was about six to ten inches long. He thought like a good water melon: the bigger, the better. Unfortunately, his research on zucchinis did not turn up good suggestions for preparing it. Nor did it explain that given free rein, the vines would slowly, but surely insinuate their way throughout the garden, crushing weaker plants. Bye-bye, beans! So long, lettuce! Ta, ta, tomatoes! Rush Run soil welcomed this assertive vegetable, promoting its pushy, aggressive stalking.
That summer we ate zucchini batter dipped and fried: gross. The stringy texture and bland taste took forever to chew. Quantities of salt didn’t improve it. Deep fried strips managed to feel squishy and hard at the same time; the only taste came from the oil. I tried mustard: it didn’t help. Raw, sliced on salad, it looked like cucumber—I loved cukes; betrayed! I gnawed my way through the first bite, poured Italian dressing on the rest of my salad and prayed for a locust blight that would destroy plants starting with ‘Z’ and ending with ‘I’.
Mom and Grammy weren’t the only ones struggling with the vegetable from hell. Pap generously bestowed bags of the green elephantine summer squash to neighbors, relatives, church folk, and total strangers if they stopped too long. How does one say, “No thanks!” to a grinning man, so proud of himself?
Pap researched further over the winter and realized he’d been over zealous in allowed the squash to grow so large and fixed that the next year. I’d gone off zucchinis for life, I thought. I discovered, though, that zucchini can be the basis of wonderful spicy bread and muffins, much like pumpkins. Surround the “Eye-tal-yun” veggie with enough sugar, butter, flour, eggs, and spices, bake it, serve it sliced, with cream cheese, and I’m first in line offering my plate for a slice.
About.com notes in its article on zucchini, or courgettes , that thirty years ago, most Americans had never heard of the vegetable; however, now it is one of our staple vegetables. Nearly fifty years ago, Mom and Grammy grappled with gigantic zucchini, attempting to make edible dishes from something they could not preserve or can, and could not make tasty despite years of disguising squirrel, pig’s heads, rabbit, mincemeat, and organ meats. People from uneducated, poor, discouraged Rush Run, Ohio, which still doesn’t have a stop sign, certainly knew about zucchini.
I hate relinquishing the idea the Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy, but my research assures me he recognized the noodles when he saw them in China as he already had eaten them at home. No one will ever question who brought zucchini to Rush Run, Ohio. I suspect Pap enjoys this accomplishment in the hereafter and has tracked Mr. Polo down to say, “You’re still a hero, Marco. Your travels are legend. Now, did ya ever try zucchini? Goes right well with spaghetti”