Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Chapter 4: A Carnival of Squash

AND then Little Salt Bear and Red Pepper Bear emerged from the potted fern forest to find three kinds of winter squash lying on the dining room table. They had been laughing and singing songs about rabbits and field mice but now they stood hushed, their eyes big and round in surprise. For these were the very vegetables they had been looking for since leaving the cupboard in the middle of the night.

"Are these the--?" Little Salt Bear breathed, unable to continue, for fear and excitement mingled strangely in his hollow tummy.

"Yes, I think so." answered Red Pepper Bear quietly.

"They're so big," said Little Salt Bear with a quake in his little salt voice. "Maybe we should go back. What if mama wakes up and sees that we're not hibernating? We're gonna be in so much trouble."

"Shut up, stupid," said Red Pepper Bear. She sneezed violently. "You're such a 'fraidy cat. Be a bear. I've always wanted to meet a winter squash, but mama always makes us go to sleep before they get a chance to get harvested. Summer squashes are so pale and mushy. These ones look much less sentimental; they've got such thick skins."

"I don't know, Peppy," Little Salt Bear whimpered, backing away.

"C'mon, let's see what they're like," Red Pepper Bear insisted. "Besides, how are we supposed to be called omnivores if we don't eat everything?"

The pair of bears scooted forward in unison on their ceramic feet. The trio of squash were making merry amongst themselves, telling jokes like the one about what you get when you cross an earthworm with an aphid and guffawing over embarrassing moments from their immature days of vines and blossoms.

Red Pepper Bear, who was the bolder of the two as you by now have guessed, slid over to the one that looked the most familiar, almost like a summer squash, for its rind was bright like the sun and seemed somewhat softer than the others.

"Excuse me, are you a winter squash?" she piped up at the oblong vegetable.

"I'm a de-li-ca-ta winter squash!" it sang to the tune of "I'm a Little Teapot," and continued:

"Here are my stripes and here is my stem.
If you want to know how sweet I am,
Split me open and scoop me out!"

The little bears blinked in wonder. They didn't know what to ask next, but it was okay because the delicata was the talkative type:

"You see, people like to separate us squash into 'summer' and 'winter' varieties, but the only difference is that we 'winter' ones are allowed to grow for longer until our skins harden and we aren't so nice to eat unless we've been roasted. We also tend to keep longer, which makes us more valued during the winter season. Me 'n' acorn squash are in the same family as the summer squashes, Cucurbita pepo, but I have the softest rind of all the winter varieties. Some people even eat it! I'm so dainty, they call me 'delicata,' though some call me 'sweet potato squash' on account of my almost sweet potato taste. I'm so delicate and tasty, it makes me feel more special than all these coarser squashes, kind of like Smurfette in the middle of all those common little male smurfs."

"Oh, is that so?" interrupted the butternut. "To my eyes (if I had eyes), you look just like an everyday delicata squash, nothing special. I, on the other hand," the curvaceous gourd continued, turning toward the bear siblings, "am not only the most popular and sweetest winter squash, by many accounts--just think of all the times you've seen butternut squash soup, butternut squash puree, butternut squash gratin, etcetera, on the menu--but--BUT! Also. I am even more special because I am a kind of marbled butternut, an heirloom variation on the common beige butternut, grown at Balakian Farm." The squash leaned back and gave a little spin to show off its unusual striation. "Ta dum!" The two bears giggled at each other and clapped in delight.

Now it was time for the third winter squash to introduce itself. It had been watching the other two with a blank expression on its speckled face.

"And you?" asked Little Salt Bear in a voice that was just above a whisper. He was still a little afraid of the big squashes, but his curiosity made him go on. "What is your special quality?"

"Well," began the mysterious squash in an equally hushed voice. "People always ask what I am, but my farmers at Eatwell say I 'just grew.' You see, I wasn't really planned. My mama's an acorn squash and my pa's kind of, well, he's one of those 'festival' guys. I never really got to know him much."

"The others say behind my back that I'm not 'true to type,'" it continued, "that I'm a mutt squash because my parents didn't come from the same variety. You see, squash are what's called open-pollinated, so that their genes swap between plants on the wind, or with the birds and the bees, instead of being self-pollinated. Farmers don't always think highly of cross-pollination between varieties, especially when growing heirlooms, because they want their produce to have predictable qualities, so they keep the different squash segregated. But once my pa caught wind of my mama's blossom, she said, 'Send that pollen on over, darlin'!' and they didn't let no farmer come between them.

"Sometimes us hybrids come out all right, you know, like more resilient. We just can't pass down our line in the same predictable way that the purebreds can unless we've been cultivated for a long time. So I'm not really sure what I am. Maybe some kind of carnival squash. Or a love squash? But to answer your question, lil' bear, I guess you could say my special quality is biodiversity."

"Mm. Biodiversity," Little Salt Bear echoed. "Sounds lovely." Peppy nodded her agreement dreamily. Their shiny little hearts stood out warmly on their shiny little bear chests. They decided that they liked this carnival love squash best of all.

Red Pepper Bear was the first to break out of their vegetable reverie. "We'd better get back to the cupboard before Mama wakes up. Besides, I'm feeling sleeeeeepy," she yawned, then rubbed her little pepper eye hole.

Little Salt Bear agreed, as usual, and they waved their goodbyes to the squash trio and thanked them all for being so delightfully informative.

"But wait!" chirped the delicata squash. "Aren't you going to eat us first? After being cut from the vine, we're just suspended in this undead state--still vibrating with the residues of our former life force but not yet reintegrated into the great chain of being."

"Yes, please do indulge in the cozy delights of our orange-hued flesh before you go!" called the butternut.

"And put us to rest, dear little bears," added the carnival love squash.

The brother and sister bear looked at the squash trio solemnly, then at each other, and, as their little stomachs rumbled with hunger, knew it was a good idea.

They took a sharp knife and sliced open the three squashes.

The insides were certainly a sight to behold, especially the creamsicle flesh of the butternut squash. The bear pair busied themselves with scooping out the seeds and dropping them into the green compost bin (for they were going into hibernation and wouldn't have time to roast the seeds much less save and replant them). But it suddenly seemed so quiet and lonely without those jolly three chatting away. Little Salt Bear and Red Pepper Bear felt heavy, and their eye holes welled up. Little salt tears and little pepper tears rained down on the scooped out squash bodies.

Then, the bears put them skin side down onto a baking sheet, filled their cavities with fragrant garlic cloves and crushed sage leaves, poured a shallow layer of water onto the sheet so the skins wouldn't burn, and put them into the oven to roast at 400°F. After 45 minutes, they pulled the crisp, smoldering squash halves from the oven, scooped them into a saucepan that had been heating a generous slice of butter and mashed the squash together with 3/4 cup of milk and more butter. Each one cried a few more salt and pepper tears into the mixture, but the smell of it was so delicious, they forgot their sorrow and began to lick up the puree until they felt as though their bellies would pop and an orange-yellow flood would burst out of their eye holes.

"All gone!" said Red Pepper Bear when they had licked the pot clean. Little Salt Bear answered with a contented hiccup. Then they linked arms and climbed back up to the cupboard, opened the door slowly so it wouldn't squeak, and tucked themselves up next to Mama's warm furry belly, nestled between the soy sauce and the agave nectar. And they had the most wonderful squash dreams all winter long. Zzzzzzzz.


The Woolly Mammoth said...

Beautiful story!

Anonymous said...

Yay! Tell it again! Tell it again!

kale daikon said...

Only if you eat your weird vegetables!