Thursday, August 11, 2011

The world’s most expensive pattypan squash

        In the end, I stood my ground and prevailed.

It wasn’t much of a victory but it was better than nothing. Better by far than the alternative, which in this case would have meant being swallowed in one of those enclosed, multi-story parking garages in downtown Lincoln, Neb. And that’s not something I’d do lightly or, given the chance, at all.

My long-suffering wife managed my endless circling with a calm, placid grace that extended to turning a deaf ear to my imprecations. We’d driven to Lincoln to see firsthand the fabled farmers’ market at the historic Haymarket District, where about 120 vendors compete neck-to-neck in a two-block area bordered by the railroad tracks. This would be our second time, the first being lost in memory except for a splendid burger and beer we ate across from the old train station. 

When asked how that farmers’ market was different than, say, the one at the end of our block each Friday evening, Lori’s answer was instantaneous. “Nobody around here sells pattypan squash,” she said. 

There was more to it than that, of course. More than a single variety of squash, more than a very large and diverse assortment of wares, there was a cultural aspect about it that was somehow lacking in our smaller, more localized market, she explained. I took this to mean that bigger wasn’t just better, it was imbued with a glimmer of cultural synergy, if not superiority. 

Being the practical type, I suggested that driving 121 miles to Lawrence—her first choice—for a pattypan squash was an absurd waste of money and time. We were already harvesting yellow squash and zucchini, and a cousin had dropped off some funky oriental cucumbers, one of which resembled a small melon. We could barely keep up with our tomatoes, green peppers and hot chiles, so onions and string beans were about all we shopped for. 

And it wasn’t as if we ate pattypan squash on a daily basis. In fact, I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever eaten a single bite of the grotesque little fruit that resembles nothing more than a pale, misshapen flying saucer. If I had, it made no lasting impression.

But isn’t that the whole point of eating, to prepare and consume memorable meals that tantalize our taste buds and pique our palates? If something is so bland that it never registers within our culinary memories, why bother?

This wasn’t, however, the time for philosophical discussions. She wanted a pattypan squash and by God she was going to get one.

Lincoln had changed, and not necessarily for the better. It had grown, for one thing, and was growing still, as evidenced by towering cranes, blockaded roads and miles of fencing sealing off vast sections of lower downtown. What wasn’t barricaded was a morass of people and vehicles vying for the same small space. And us, of course, two small-town denizens dropped into a maelstrom of motion and haste. 

It didn’t take long for my big-city driving skills to kick in. Nor was it long before Lori was suggesting an indoor parking garage, numerous to the point of ubiquity. My steadfast refusal was less about being cheap than about a deep psychological scar known to very few. It harkened back to grade school, where I was routinely dumped headlong into a metal trashcan by a beetle-browed, knuckle-dragging ape, whereupon his simpering cohorts would begin beating the sides with anything at hand large and heavy. The psychological damage wasn’t claustrophobia per se but something limited to confined spaces and noise. Spelunking in dark caverns never bothered me. 

So we circled and backtracked and meandered and almost got lost and then took a wrong turn that sent us sailing over the tracks on an elevated viaduct. And below us a series of narrow streets utterly devoid of traffic! Several miles later I made a sharp U-turn, found a way beneath the viaduct to a quiet street a mere five blocks from the market.

Before I could congratulate myself we were in the fray, sandwiched between hundreds of shoppers, lingerers, loiterers and pushers of a dozen nationalities. It was indeed a cultural stew, a synergetic symbiosis, a riot of clamor and color, sizes and shapes. The current carried us from booth to booth, more prisoner than bystander, and every booth a replica of the one before so that I wondered how they could possibly compete, and why a customer would prefer this vendor over that when everything for sale was a mirror image of the rest, neither greater nor lesser and priced to match. Nor did it appear that anyone was actually buying; few people carried bags and fewer seemed interested in anything more than the act of gawking. Several vendors offered cooked meals, whether barbecue ribs or egg rolls, kolaches (no green chile cheese, alas) or cinnamon rolls, and one had a variety of chile rellenos. More astounding was that he seemed to be doing a brisk business. “Would you like one?” Lori asked. A Nebraska chile relleno? No thanks

When we finally broke free, Lori grasped a small pattypan squash.

“Only one?” I asked incredulously.

Only one. 

There were other stops, such as the brewpub and a grocery store, so that by the time we departed the city both the car and stomachs were full. And later, once we’d settled in for the evening, I did a quick calculation of cost versus product, focusing on that single stunted squash. The total was stupefying to the point of incomprehensibility. 

Ah, well, I thought. What counts is the journey. 

3 comments: said...

Funny and wonderful and oh, so true. I do love a good farmer's market, but by that I mean a collection of produce sellers. Spare me the potters and musicians and fried-whatever on a stick.

The problem around here is that so much gets shipped in from the valley or Florida, and then sold as "home grown". You have to ask: Is it local? Did you grow it? If not, did you pick it? Where did it come from?

But the best ever? Pickup trucks along the highway, discovered by accident and attended by an old geezer in bluejeans. I found me some peaches last week. The last three are in the refrigerator. I hardly can stand to eat them.

Tom Parker said...

Most of this stuff is at least grown locally, so we're on good shape on that end. But realistically, how do three dozen vendors selling tomatoes cheek to jowl compete? And how are customers supposed to decide between them? Too much. Give me a small, local--and I mean down-the-street local--farmer's market and I'm content. said...

OK - the name of that squash kept nudging at me. Just now I remembered: Patapan. It's an old French carol, probably the forerunner of the The Little Drummer Boy.

In the song, there is a drum shaped like your squash, and the sound it makes is represented as "patapan".

All you ever wanted to know is here. Shoot, that may be more than you want to know.

Anyway, I think your squash is named as it is because it resembles the drum, rather than a flying saucer. ;-)

The really good news is that the neurons seem to be firing up again after the recent unpleasantness. For a while there, nothing reminded me of anything. ;-)