Right before each month stars, we at S&C are all called to look at the Monthly Ideas Post, a big long post of holidays, silly days, remembrance days, seasonal topics, trends, and other things to write about for the upcoming month. I got the notification and started scrolling: back to school, hot temperatures, grilling, summer happy fun times, the usual. And then it appeared – eight beautiful words that gave me the perfect excuse to tell possibly the most hilarious story about my grandmother: “Sneak a Zucchini on Your Neighbor’s Porch Day.” I claimed it. My coworkers all responded with confusion. Trust me, I said, you’re in for a treat. Pour yourself a glass of sweet tea and sit back.
A little background: my grandfather worked in the cotton industry buying and selling cotton futures, meaning he was basically a cotton gambler. In one of the fields his company’s mill farmed, there was a triangular piece of land that the equipment couldn’t get through. Rather than have it go to waste, all the higher-ups at the mill pitched in to till the land themselves and make it a vegetable garden. Everyone at the mill could go there and take home vegetables as long as they helped maintain it.
The summer of 1978 was the second or third summer that the triangle vegetable garden had been around, and it was a serious success. My mom had just turned 14, my aunt was nearing 16, and everyone was miserable in the Montgomery, Alabama heat. Summer in Montgomery means two things: cockroaches and fresh vegetables. That summer, there was an abundance of both. To this day, my mom gets a wild look in her eyes at the very mention of cockroaches pretty similar to Tony Montana’s when introducing his “little friend.” My grandfather had started to bring in the fruits and veggies of his labor. Peppers, tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, squash, okra, and zucchini. My mother had never enjoyed zucchini, but her family had a rule that you had to try at least one bite of any new food or preparation of a food before determining if you liked it or not, so she’d have her obligatory bite and continue on with the rest of the meal.
This summer, however, things were different. Rather than enough vegetables to last a day, my grandfather would fill the back of the pickup truck with vegetables each day. He’d go on weekends, sometimes twice a day. And there was ALWAYS zucchini. The kitchen was covered in vegetables, and the last thing they needed was to attract more of those damn roaches, so my mom and aunt started giving vegetables to the neighbors. Evidently that spring, the guys in the office had gotten really excited about the garden. Rather than one or two varieties of tomatoes, they had seven; rather than one or two plants per type, they had five or ten. What was once a manageable endeavor had turned into a veritable monstrosity.
So, off my mom and aunt went with the vegetables. At first, the neighbors were grateful. Free, fresh vegetables! As the weeks passed, their route became longer and the bags left became bigger. It got to the point that they had to start ding dong ditching the vegetables on their neighbors’ porches because even they couldn’t take any more, especially since the bags were over half full of zucchini. My grandmother took this as a dare, and cooked every meal with zucchini in it. Zucchini noodles aren’t new, y’all – my grandmother was ruining pasta sauce with zoodles and making lasagna with strips of zucchini WAY before the internet had even been invented. Zucchini bread, zucchini muffins, zucchini cake, zucchini brownies, zucchini quiche – every meal was filled with zucchini. My mom started tagging along with my grandfather to his job (because what else would a 14 year old do in the summer in Montgomery) to investigate this garden.
It. Was. Packed.
You could barely tiptoe between the hodgepodge of vegetables. It seemed that for every vegetable picked, two would grow in their place. One thing she especially took note of, however, was that you could practically watch the zucchini grow. There was one morning when my grandfather looked at a zucchini and said: “No, not big enough just yet.” They checked on it after lunch, and sure enough, it had grown. They went ahead and picked it before it got any bigger because the last thing that needed to happen was a giant zucchini.
Well, my grandfather returned home from work one day, and the vegetables started coming in shifts. Tomatoes that my grandmother would use in yet another pasta sauce recipe. Onions that would be marinated in vinegar. Beautiful cucumbers. And then, in walked a watermelon. Well, in walked my grandfather carrying a watermelon.
“Uh, Marvin?” My grandmother raised an eyebrow. “I thought y’all decided not to plant watermelon this year.”
My grandfather gets the last of the veggies. “No, we didn’t.”
“Then what the hell is this?” She picked up a serrated knife.
“Zucchini.” His gravelly voice made the room silent. This giant spherical green monstrosity that could have won a county fair and state records for biggest watermelon was no watermelon. Watermelon would have been fun, my mom thought, her hopes rushing out like watermelon juice on a white shirt. It would have been good. And cold. And not zucchini.
My mother and aunt looked at each other, stunned. They’d already had bags of vegetables thrown back at them when they weren’t quick enough running away from ding-dong-ditching the bags. They needed a plan, and fast. They went outside to calculate their next move.
Meanwhile, my grandmother put on her bravest face and said quite triumphantly, “I will cook it!” She tried several pans, but none would fit this verdant horror but the immense turkey pan used for Thanksgiving, so in it went. My grandmother couldn’t follow a recipe if Gordon Ramsay glued her to a cookbook, so she was just happily making this up as she went. She sliced open the top, carving it out so only the outer hull and enough squash to give it stability remained. The rest got chopped up and placed back inside. She chopped some fresh tomatoes, and added those. Next, some onions, fresh squash, peppers, fresh herbs. I’m pretty sure she also added some wine, because she was in a “everything tastes better cooked in wine” mood. And, for some ungodly, unholy, terrifying reason, my grandmother decided that this nice vegetable bake needed a protein. Not just any protein, but canned salmon.
My mom, aunt, and grandfather peered into the kitchen at different times, terrified. My grandmother could make a cardboard lid turn into a scrumptious meal, but this…This looked questionable, at best. She put her zucchini boat, as she dubbed it, into the oven at 350 and waited. And waited. Aaaaand waited.
Five hours later, around ten at night, it was done. The table was set with plates, forks, and knives. There was no salad, no bread; nothing on the table to distract from the greenish-brownish-greyish foul-smelling sadness in front of them. My grandmother was happily humming along with a serving knife, cutting in -SPLOOSH. The knife fell right through.
“Hm. Well, then.” She exchanged everyone’s plates for soup bowls and got a ladle. The soppy, gloppy, watery mess was schlupped into everyone’s bowl. My mother stared at the sadness in her bowl, looking at my aunt.
What did we do to deserve this? My mother sighed with her eyes.
Maybe she’s on drugs? Or maybe she’s just having another existential crisis? My aunt shrugged, trying not to look offended but was very visibly so.
My grandfather gathered his courage. He always ate everything my grandmother made, even if it was burned to a crisp because she made it and he was thankful for it. And it wasn’t hard – she was a wonderful cook! He hoped somewhere in his head that he was suffering a heat mirage; that this wasn’t real. But he was going to eat it anyway. He put a fully-laden spoon in his mouth, the rest of the table watching him decide their fate. My grandmother looked more and more distressed by the concoction she made, and my mom and aunt were trying not to vomit at the table.
He swallowed. The spoon went down.
“Wanda?” My grandfather looked like a child who’d had his mouth washed out with sudsy laundry water and hot peppers.
“Yes, Marvin?” She folded her fingers together, ready to accept defeat, but secretly hoping she’d started a new food trend.
“Can we order a pizza?” The table visibly sighed.
And that, dear reader, is how my mother got out of ever having to eat zucchini, smell zucchini, buy zucchini, or leave zucchini on a neighbor’s porch ever again.