Photos: Trina and Greg
I first read about this squash, or one like it, in Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a terrific book about the Kingsolver family's "journey away from the industrial-food pipeline to a rural life in which they vow to buy only food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it." I was surprised at how engrossing, funny and educational their story proved to be. It's a must-read!
In the book, Kingsolver tells the story of stumbling upon this ugly beast in a roadside vegetable stand while vacationing in rural Italy. She describes it as "unglamorous by conventional standards: dark blue-green, smaller than the avergae jack-o'-lantern, a bit squat, and covered over 100 percent of its body with bluish warts." When she asked whether it was edible, the proprietor "sighed patiently. Edible, signora? He gave me to know this wart-covered cucurbit I held in my hand was the most delicious vegetable known to humankind. If I was any kind of cook, any kind of gardener, I needed to grow and eat them myself."
She apologized for the fact that she wasn't in a position to purchase any of his lovely squash or pumpkins because she and her husband were tourists, travelling hotel to hotel in a rental car, with no knives, no cooking implements, no kitchen facilities at their disposal. Being gardeners, they were enthusiastic admirers of his organic bounty, but what would they possibly do with a pumpkin?
She could, however, haul seeds around with her for the rest of her vacation. When she inquired about buying seeds for the warty creature, the proprietor "leaned toward me indulgently, summoning the disposition that all good people of the world maintain toward the earnest dimwitted: the seeds, he explained, are inside the pumpkin."
He then suggested -- indeed practically insisted, stopping just short of telling her she'd buy the pumpkin and she'd like it -- that she'd be able to coerce some hotelier along her route to cook it for her in any number of wonderful ways after removing the seeds for her.
She writes, "I frankly could not imagine sallying into the kitchen of our hotel and asking anyone to carve up a pumpkin, but we were in so deep by now I figured I'd just buy the darn thing and leave it in a ditch somewhere. Or maybe, somehow, figure out how to extract its seeds."
She never did get it cooked, so she wasn't able to offer any confirmation of the squash's succulence. Still, I was enthralled by the idea of such an ugly food, and the proprietor's insistence that there was no better vegetable in the history of the known universe. Also, feeling personally goaded by the farmer's challenge, "If I was any kind of cook, any kind of gardener, I needed to grow and eat them myself," I was compelled to find that squash. I would do whatever it took to get my hands on seed for the mysterious warty blue beast.
I began searching seed catalogs for anything that sounded like a close match. Finally, in the Seed Saver's Exchange catalog, I came across a squash that I thought must surely be the one: "Heirloom winter squash from Italy. Large grey-green bumpy turbans average 10-12 pounds. Sweet dry flesh, excellent in soups and pastas." I ordered the seeds over the winter, planted a few of them in the spring, and watched the vine overtake my little piece of the earth, reaching and spreading and climbing in all directions... and then watched as it wilted practically overnight, hit hard by a massive squash bug infestation.
Having nearly lost the plant entirely, I was pretty happy in late August to boast a mere two squash as my entire crop. And now, a year after first learning of the Marina di Chioggia's existence, I can very happily attest to the accuracy of the Italian farmer's endorsement. Even after all the build-up, all the drama, and the extremely romanticized expectations surrounding this warty beast, it did not disappoint. The Marina di Chioggia is indeed the most amazing, rich, delicious pumpkin (or squash) ever to grace my palate. It's a must-eat!
Earlier chapters of the Marina di Chioggia saga: