The art of cooking a squash begins with the right kind of information
We go to the Jean-Talon, the premier outdoor market in Montreal, to fondle produce before driving back home.
It’s no longer summer, that message made loud and clear by the decrease in foot traffic. The chill. The ease in parking. The brick and mortar shops surrounding the market sporting snow tents for their doors. It doesn’t feel like a party any more.
We hop out and head towards the vast indoors, the weather being about 12 Celcius, but I stop at an outdoor offering, staring at a gaggle of asparagus and thinking about the color of urine. What could I make to go with it?
The Director calls me over. In red plastic buckets sit schools of squash. She does most of our grocery shopping and, upon seeing the buckets, grows excited. In our little red-neck mountain town, squash is currently hard to find.
I’m wondering if I can get the Director to consent to spaghetti squash twice in the same year when two black women in their mid-twenties approach us. The taller one asks, “Excuse me. Can you tell us what these are and how you would prepare them?”
She asks us in English, which I find curious.
The Director starts pitching to get the commission: “Cook it into a pan of water, delicious. FULL OF VITAMIN E.”
“These are all squash,” I say, starting from scratch but also hurrying before the onslaught. “Put the whole thing in the oven for about 15 minutes at maybe 350 degrees.”
They both nod as if committing my instructions to memory. I’m hoping they’re okay with Fahrenheit, because I’m thinking they’re not from around these parts. But I’m not sure where the accent places them.
A white woman stops and listens.
“Get a large sharp knife and cut it in half. Use a fork to scrape out the seeds.”
“Yeah,” the Director says, revving.
“Tomatoes, mushrooms,” the Director offers.
I say, “After you’ve cut them in half and removed the seeds, stick them in a dish with a bit of water…”
“Incredibly good,” the Director directs.
The women are trying to take it in.
“Put them face down in the water and cook for maybe 30-40 minutes. Until they’re very soft,” I say.
“Helps with digestion,” the Director spurts.
The woman closest to me asks, “But how do you eat it?”
I am reminded of a meal we had with one of our European friends. I prepared a butternut while our friend made us steak. She kept sawing the pan over our electric stove, despite my telling her there was no flame. She eventually set the kitchen briefly on fire, triggering the alarm, causing our dog to cry and howl, something he never did before or since. Just prior to cooking she entreated us to a improvised dance, rubbing herself suggestively against the weight-bearing column in our dining area. Which was weird because our column was definitely asexual. After the smoke cleared, the plates emptied, the friend declared, “I love this. I never even heard about squash before tonight. It doesn’t exist where I’m from.”
The Director is almost yelling now at the black woman, “IN a scoop. With sauce. Very good for your health.”
I want to tell them about the clever ways another friend, an American, got me to love the winter vegetable. With flour tortillas cut into little strips and saki cups of garlic sauteed in melted butter. Like little sushi rolls.
But I’m running out of time.
“You can just pour some melted butter and garlic over it and eat it simple,” I say.
“Cast iron pan,” the Director calls out. “Trinkets.”
I nod in the direction of the Director. “Or get a spaghetti squash, you can use it instead of actual pasta. Once it’s cooked, take a fork and scrape the insides. Comes out like … spaghetti. Pour some sauce over it, you’ve got a meal.”
“The fiber,” the Director says.
“Even a stew with beef, onions, garlic, and red wine. You can put any cooked squash at the bottom of the bowl, and pour that over. Basically in place of rice or potatoes.”
The woman says cautiously, “I’ve seen these in displays for other things. Non-food things.”
I laugh. “Yeah, they’re used for decoration a lot.” I’m nodding, visualizing a lifetime of Halloween and Thanksgiving dioramas.
But I stop because both women look completely confused, as in why would you use food for decoration?
The Director asks them, “What country are you from?”
They both answer, “Cameroon.”
The Director and I both call out, “Ahhhh.” We both search our memories for something to say about their country but we come up blank. I know it’s right next to Nigeria but then what? You call it corn, we call it maize?
I’m still thinking about the concept of using food as decor and experience conflicting emotions. We had had a brief bout of real food insecurity. We wish the women luck after they thank us, and we walk inside to the market proper to quietly fill our bags.
Until the Director spots the egg man to discuss what kind of bird egg we should get.