Days of Pith and Marrow

“I beg of you a thousand pardons, but these vegetable marrows, they have driven me to the edges of barbarity!” (Hercule Poirot, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

hpmasterdetective

Perhaps it is the generous abundance of zucchini in circulation at this time of year that reminded me that the fastidious detective Hercule Poirot was once driven to madness by ‘these vegetable marrows’.

If your kitchen has been taken over by things that resemble large green gunboats, if your refrigerator door can’t quite close without oozing vegetable drippings, giantzrunif you’re afraid of clowns, dolls, and monstrous life forms, if you can’t enter your garden without hacking through groves of giant zucchinis, if you see your neighbor approaching with a suspicious paper bag that surely contains yet more of the fibrous offerings, you might feel like escaping into a good book for relief.

But I warn you, the zucchini is lurking there, too.

Skeptical? For starters, this lowly garden vegetable has aroused scorn, revulsion, fear, outright reverence, become a catalyst for romance, harrowing revenge, towering rage, is dismissed with contempt, and was finally championed by a British culinary maven who rescued it from obscurity, treated it like an eggplant and dusted it with cheese.

The earthy, dank underworld of the Giant Cucurbita pepo takes us everywhere from love scenes in literature, to fear and loathing amongst authors, and to the real truth behind why we hate Mrs. McGregor.

Tough, tasteless, pithy–yes. But this denizen of the late summer garden is anything but dull.

Agatha Christie must have had a fine distaste for marrows. Readers of Agatha Christie’s novels will remember that Hercule Poirot was at one time happily planning his retirement from solving crimes. His new hobby was to put his considerable ‘little gray cells’ to the matter of how to make the vegetable marrow taste, well–good. The response of his friend Dr. Burton?

“Vegetable marrows? What d’yer mean? Those great swollen green things that taste of water?”

The plan, however, went horribly awry, and in the mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Poirot is forced to concede defeat. The marrows have won. They are still watery and tasteless. He, the incomparable Hercule Poirot, is powerless against them.

Poirot hurls them from his garden in a fit of rage.

“Now I give up on you…!” he screams in fury. “You shall torment me no longer. I will KILL you!”

The unsuspecting Dr Sheppard is out in his garden next door, and becomes an innocent bystander to this episode.

‘I am rather fond of gardening. I was busily exterminating dandelion roots when a shout of warning sounded from close by and a heavy body whizzed by my ear and fell at my feet with a repellent squelch. It was a vegetable marrow!’

One simply has to be fond of a writer that uses phrases such as ‘repellent squelch’.

The garden marrow is pondered with a similar sense of horror by UK garden writer Alex Mitchell:

‘I’m haunted by a giant cucurbit. It was a courgette when we went away, but the next three weeks saw all three helpful holiday waterers casually sidestep it in favour of plums, runner beans, raspberries and tomatoes (yet more ammunition for my dossier “No one really likes courgettes that much, if they are honest”).

‘As anyone with even the merest passing knowledge of vegetable-growing knows, a courgette that is ignored will get its revenge. It does this by transmogrifying into a marrow monster, a bloated green airship of vegetable matter that laughs in the face of culinary invention and lurks sinisterly in the undergrowth, giving you a little shock when you do the watering.’ What does one do with this beast?’

Read more of Mitchell’s wonderful article, and his time honored solution to his problem.

In this statement— ‘no one really likes [them] that much, if they are honest’— Mitchell echoes the sentiments of renowned food writer, M.F.K. Fisher. That lovely wordsmith of the kitchen writes, in An Alphabet for Gourmets:

‘[The] zucchini, the nearest decent gastronomical counterpart to those overgrown pithy garden monsters called vegetable marrows in England.’ 

Fisher does offer a recipe for a zucchini frittata, but with this interesting sidebar comment:

‘… which will be honestly but very indelicately loathed by anyone honest enough to confess to a basic loathing for zucchini.’

Hmmm. What an interesting array of adjectives we are accumulating for a humble garden vegetable. Loathsome? Repellent?  Monstrous? Haunted? Sinister? Watery? Swollen? Tasteless? Transmogrified? (I particularly love this last creative choice).

At the very least we have here a complex and contradictory cucurbita. It’s a vegetable that is actually a fruit. A fruit that is treated like a vegetable. And we’re just getting started.

Charles Dickens has been known to employ the use of marrow throwing in his literature. Only this time it is for romance and we are, along with the cucumbers, marrows and other vegetables, ‘wafting mellifluously’ over garden walls.

Yes, it is true love that calls to the curious cucurbit and gives it immortality in literature, in Nicholas Nickleby

‘where the most divine charms’–here he kissed his hand and bowed again–‘waft mellifluousness over the neighbours’ gardens, and force the fruit and vegetables into premature existence….’

At any rate, the impassioned elderly suitor to Mrs. Nickleby begins hurling his overwrought projectiles into the Nickleby’s garden as a maddened declaration of love…

‘…..when a shouting and scuffling noise, as of an elderly gentleman whooping, and kicking up his legs on loose gravel, with great violence, was heard to proceed from the same direction as the former sounds; and before they had subsided, a large cucumber was seen to shoot up in the air with the velocity of a sky-rocket, whence it descended, tumbling over and over, until it fell at Mrs Nickleby’s feet.

This remarkable appearance was succeeded by another of a precisely similar description; then a fine vegetable marrow, of unusually large dimensions, was seen to whirl aloft, and come toppling down; then, several cucumbers shot up together; and, finally, the air was darkened by a shower of…..vegetables, which fell rolling and scattering, and bumping about, in all directions…..

“It seems designed to attract our attention, mama,” said Kate.’

Like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Dickens creates a scene of madcap mayhem with a cannonade of marrows. Curious, is it not?

While on the subject of marrows as projectiles–and apparently a favorite one with British writers–we have the misadventures of the Flopsy bunnies in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. This story, in which the youngest baby bunny, the very picture of innocent curiosity, is knocked almost unconscious by an airborne rotten marrow, could stand up to any of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales for sheer horror.Flopsy Bunny

To be presented with such a contradictory admixture of warm and fuzzy narrative, poisoned with the shrilly evil invectives of Mrs. McGregor, along with threats of being skinned alive and made into a coat— this was pretty harrowing stuff.

But we’re all adults now, and, while hurling them at innocent bystanders with fury—or lovestruck passion—is clearly an option, we know that the time honored solution to an over-abundance of the vexing cucurbit is that of quietly and furtively giving them away.

This seasonal social phenomenon is commented on by Miss Read, the author of many books that chronicle English village life. Here, in Village Diary, she writes

‘Marrows, alas, are arriving in a steady stream at the back door….

I can see that I shall have to start digging, under cover of darkness, and inter the unwieldy monsters.’

There is a baffling sort of etiquette implied here; a passive-aggressive generosity that Miss Read ponders, as do we. One can give away their ‘unwieldy monsters’, but the recipient of this gift would be considered quite rude if they passed their bestowal on to someone else, leaving them with no other alternative but to bury them ‘under cover of darkness.’ In this the humble vegetable marrow begins to resemble the strangely enduring, logic-defying, quasi-popularity of fruitcakes.

What a world of social impropriety this vegetable-that-is-a-fruit thrusts upon us.

Both writers Miss Read and Angela Thirkell introduce a unique component into the War Between the Sexes in their novels: marrow carving.carvedzucchini

Miss Read wrote, in the story of Emily Davis, of the tyrant Mansfield Back —‘not bad looking in a florid, massive fashion’—and how the daring little Miss Emily got her revenge by carving the word ‘Bully’ into Manny Back’s prize marrow. (He was devastated, and justice was done.)

Angela Thirkell, in her popular novel The Brandons, heats things up nicely in the tranquil garden at Stories whereby Mr. Turpin’s prize-winning marrow provides a coy metaphor for young love:

‘[Mr. Turpin] led the way towards the rich bed of manure where sprawled his beloved vegetable marrows. With a threatening gesture he jabbed his fork into the ground, stooped, and with infinite reverence turned the fattest marrow gently on one side. On its under surface, in mis-shapen letters, was too plainly visible the word HILARY.

“That’s my name!” said Mr. Grant.’

“I thought it would be nice for you to have your name on a prize marrow,” confessed young Delia Brandon…rather ingenuously.

Cucurbita pepo strikes again.

In Barbara Pym’s novel Jane and Prudence–where even the title conjures up the sound of tea cups clattering and the faint odor of mothballs clinging to the table linens–we have a safe flirtation made ever so slightly dangerous by the introduction of a ‘magnificent’ marrow.

“What a fine marrow, Mr. Driver,” said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. “It is the biggest one we have so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?”

Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.

“It is magnificent,” said Mrs. Mayhew reverently.

Mr. Driver moved forward and presented the marrow to Miss Doggett with something of a flourish.

Jane felt as if she were assisting at some primitive kind of ritual whose significance she hardly dared to guess.’

Matronly romance at its sizzling best. And the iconic symbol of a giant marrow to thank for it. Did you notice— in these last two examples— that some form of the word reverence is used?

Not so with A.A. Milne. The creator of Winnie the Pooh loved his vegetables, and even thrills to the subject of celery:

“There is a crispness about celery that is of the essence of October. It is as fresh and clean as a rainy day after a spell of heat.   It crackles pleasantly in the mouth.”

No such plaudits for the lowly marrow, however, for he goes on:

Vegetable marrows are vegetables pour rire (for laughs) and have no place in any serious consideration of the seasons.’

Before we leave the topic of literature and the marrow as a completely mixed up metaphor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Robert Plumer Ward. Someone should mention him. He was a nineteenth century novelist who has been forgotten, and for good reason.

A reviewer dismissed his novel Tremaine as ‘extremely dull’, and ‘a sort of literary equivalent of a vegetable marrow’.

The marrow as dull? This reviewer obviously hadn’t read Jane and Prudence.

Returning Cucurbita pepo to the culinary world, where some, like M.F.K. Fisher, doubt they belong, we have the considerable talents of Mrs. Beeton and Elizabeth David to consider. If the garden marrow was considered hopelessly watery, the resourceful Mrs. Beeton took the approach, in her recipe book of 1860, of fighting fire with fire. Or water with water, in this case.

 

MrsBeetonMarrowsHer recipe tells us to serve them up…”Dished on toast“? Oh, dear. Fast forward to 1885, and a certain ‘Wyvern’(aka The Eminently Hyphenated Colonel Arthur Robert Kennedy-Herbert) responds, in his cookery book ‘Culinary Jottings’:

‘Carefully avoid the awful English custom of serving marrows on sodden toast.’

Sorry, Mrs. Beeton. You are obviously of the English culinary school of thought that considers anything would taste good if served on buttered toast. While you won us over with your impressive chapter ‘General Observations on Quadrupeds’, you have failed us miserably as a guide in navigating the wild world of marrows. We leave you then, and move on to Elizabeth David.

Ah, Elizabeth David. That culinary diva did her own sort of heave-ho to the zucchini when she launched it–not over a garden wall, but into the popular consciousness of the sixties-era British cooking public with the publication of her book Italian Cooking. She became a hero in a culinary revolution, for

‘Elizabeth David liberated us from the tyranny of watery, stringy, rank tasting boiled marrow by writing enthusiastically about this expensive unknown Italian vegetable’…. The Oxford Companion to Italian Food

(It appears we can now add ‘tyranny’ to the list of marrow woes. The vision of Manny Back’s bloated prizewinner with the name ‘Bully’ inscribed into it suddenly rolls and tumbles into view.)

Yet what Elizabeth David did for the marrow was quite an accomplishment, first by cooking it small and calling it a courgette. Second, by insisting it be prepared as an aubergine, gratined, and sprinkled with cheese. What was she up against? A cooking and eating populace whose memories of the rationing of WWII and after were still fresh in their minds. No doubt it was considered wasteful and unpatriotic to the thrifty-minded Victory Gardeners to eat a vegetable before it had been allowed to grow to ten times bigger than its edible size. Why feed only two people from a vegetable when you could allow it to grow to the dimensions of a small Hindenburg and feed an army?

Elizabeth David is something of a rock star in my kitchen. But even she would have become impatient with too much ado about zucchini. I appreciate your patience in indulging my whim. As a thank you, I offer up a nice glass of wine and one of my favorite chilled salads with zucchini carpaccio. And please take that brown paper bag on your way out….

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(This is a revised and updated version of an article written previously by yours truly.)

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