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World's Worst Vegetable?


I hate banana squash. Always have. Always will.

Unlike other nightmare foods of childhood, I have not come around on that pink-skinned, orange-fleshed monster among squashes. Peas, which I once swallowed as pills, I now eat with pleasure. Lima beans, formerly regarded by me as sand in a membrane, I adore. Yams, avocados, fish, beef tongue, asparagus and liver I learned to love before I left my mother's house. Not banana squash. Never banana squash.

My mother refused to believe I truly, madly, deeply hated banana squash in and of itself. She would serve it mashed and tell me it was pumpkin or mashed carrots or sweet potato. I was never once fooled. The giveaways were a characteristic stringiness, a watery cellularity, a cowardly, unconvincing sweetness.

"Taste it, just taste it," my mother would urge me time and time again. "You might like it."

I was an adventurous eater, even as a child. I'd come around on horseradish and capers, hadn't I? Why not banana squash? So I'd taste it, hoping for the miracle, the transformation of repugnance into desire, perhaps the maturing of a banana squash-specific taste bud.

Nothing ever changed. What's worst in squash is most manifest in the banana variety, though certain pithy pumpkins can compare. Even cloaked in butter and brown sugar, the hideous orange pulp of the banana squash is nothing but so much bland vegetal matter. While the largest of the squashes, it remains the wimpiest, weakest, most wishy-washy and insipid of squashes. It is as if, in straining for size, banana squash lost all the virtues inherent in winter squash--the richness and density, the velvety texture, the nut-like flavor.

Anything loathed so deeply for so long acquires a certain metaphorical weight. Twelve years ago, my sister had me over for dinner. She handed me a plate on which sat a wedge of banana squash the size of a small rowboat. Surely, I thought, it must have slipped her mind that this was my enemy among food. I said nothing. I actually tasted a small bit, enough to ascertain that neither the squash nor I had changed. I proceeded to ignore it. Finally, deep into the meal, my sister blurted out, "Don't you hate banana squash?"

"Yes," I said. "I was wondering why you gave me such a big slab of it."

"To get back at you."

"For what?"

"For when I had my wisdom teeth out."

"What did I do when you had your wisdom teeth out?"

"Don't you remember? You told me I looked like Richard Nixon!"

I haven't had to eat straight banana squash since. My mother died five years ago and my sister not only lives far away in Washington, she's become more direct in her expressions of anger.

Once, a friend grew some banana squash. He brought me a small specimen: five pounds in weight and the size of a miniature dachshund. I hacked into it and used a quarter of it to make a batch of squash soup. By straining the pulp, using a good broth and a whole cup of cream, I almost obviated banana squash's most loathsome characteristics. The remaining three-quarters of the gift squash made excellent compost.

Just a few days ago, my father stopped by and we talked about banana squash.

"Never cared for the stuff myself," he admitted. "The texture. " He made a face.

"So if half the family hated it," I asked, "I wonder why Mom cooked it as much as she did?"

The question hung between us as my mother's possible motives raced through my mind. Was she hostile? Had she denied our feelings? Refused to acknowledge our right to eat what we liked? Had she been engaged in a war of the wills?

"I don't know," Dad said. "Maybe she liked banana squash."

This is the only way I can eat banana squash. It is important to strain the squash after it's pureed--this is the step that eliminates most of the hateful texture.

BANANA SQUASH SOUP 1 pound banana squash 1/4 cup butter 1/4 cup flour 3 cups chicken stock or vegetable broth 1 cup heavy cream Salt Freshly ground pepper Nutmeg, grated

If squash bought whole, slice in 1/2 and remove seeds. Cut off 1-pound piece.

Bake squash at 350 degrees 30 minutes, or until fork-tender.

Puree cooked squash in blender or food processor and strain. Should have about 2 cups squash puree.

Knead together butter and flour and set aside.

Combine squash puree and chicken stock in large saucepan over medium-high heat and stir to get smooth texture. Stir in butter-flour mixture until smooth. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and stir in cream. Do not let soup boil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately topped with dash freshly grated nutmeg. Makes 4 servings.

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