Rare Ugandan squash seeds flourish in Hawaii, leading to a partnership with a local restaurant.
As the hurricane passed by, I sheltered in the young readers section of our local library, flipping through the Enchantment of the World book on Uganda. It was uncharacteristic for a farmer to be there at midday, but I was escaping the rains that flooded my small farm one-half mile away. Seeking inspiration, I was unaware of the adventures that would come my way because of the five squash seeds I held in a waterproof bag. They had travelled to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and I wanted it to be worth it. I examined a crowned crane, bananas, and a smiling man surrounded by bougainvillea. The caption read, ‘this Bantu farmer benefits from fertile soil and dependable rain.’ “Good for him,” I thought as I headed back to the farm. I currently had neither fertile soil nor dependable rain, and I was trying to grow the seeds of his ancestors. Night temperatures were in the 40’s, and farmlands that had endured two decades of drought were now punctuated with streams. I pulled out the package labeled ‘Giant Pink Banana Variegated-Uganda’ scrolled out by Joe Simcox. I was concerned about my ability to produce a seed crop of a rare variety in a state where squash had failed since 2007.
I pushed each seed into the homemade soil of a 20-gallon container, and then planted a marker like a flag. Thinking of the Ugandan farmers 10,856 miles away, I was now connected to these seeds. There was no backing out. Joe was unreachable somewhere in the valleys and deserts of the world. I sat worrying in my MG, watching three wiper blades clear the windshield. I was in on this adventure no matter what!
I met Joe at a neighborhood gathering weeks earlier, after getting the request to come over at 9 o’clock on a Sunday night. My neighbor baited me with news that “some guy just flew in, and he knew an awful lot about squash.” They wanted me to distill the information that flowed forth. Joe was afire with a passionate discourse on tropical plants when I entered. His stories illuminated plants that were a world away from Hawaii. He seemed overly alert as many jetlagged passengers to Hawaii often do. Some of the guests shot looks in my direction, mouthing, “what is that?” I would do my best to respond or reply with a shrug of the shoulders. A long line of farmers raised me, and we knew plants like the backs of our hands, but we didn’t know them in Latin. I was struggling. And so it went, as we parted under a star-filled sky, exchanging contacts, and noting that maybe he would send me some seeds. I soon found myself opening the mailbox to tiny parcels with messages more fit for James Bond than a rookie farmer. What Joe and I had in common was that we believed that the answers were found in seed diversity; his letters closing with the phrases, “extremely rare,” and “good luck.”
Heirloom squash were creating answers at my farm. It was Jere Gettle’s Thai Rai Kaw Tok pumpkin that helped to prove my theory on historic seeds. I had grown out 27-pound versions that bespoke possibility both for sustainable farming and reclaiming a lost market. Once local food is replaced by cheap imports, it’s hard to get it back. In 1960, Hawaii supplied over 90% of its own food, importing the other 10%, but, thirty years later, the numbers were reversed. For squash, we were facing 97% imports since 2007. Hawaii’s problem was that we sat squarely on a shipping route. I learned of the continuum between seed and plate, and soon I was part of it.
The Ugandan squash sprawled and fruited under the watchful gaze of many female Melon Flies, (Bactrocera cucurbitae.) An 8# paper bag served as armor for the fruits. I sent Joe squash baby pictures, updating him on successes and painful failures. Simultaneously, I filled my car with baskets of rare squash in search of a fearless chef who would relish in these treasures. I was met with reluctance, and worse yet, apathy. I would pull them out of their grip and head for the door. Being on an island limits your options, but I knew these squash, the Ugandan farmer, Joe, and I all deserved better. I dreamed that these fruit relics could become a part of contemporary cuisine. So the rare pink-striped squash and I got back into the MG, spinning gravel as we went.
I was wiping the dust from the windshield when I listened to a smooth voice that jazz musicians would call a ‘cool cat’ on my answering machine. The message was punctuated with what sounded like stirring something on the stove. He noted that he was in search of unique produce and my squash had been recommended due to my front-of-house heirloom presentation at a local restaurant. It seemed like a dream, as I listened to it again and again.
I researched Chef Charles Voudouris, finding him smiling in chefs’ whites on the beach in front of the Viceroy Anguilla. His bio was dappled with culinary competition awards, and a guest list that included national athletes and celebrities that were served under his reign as Executive Sous Chef. Then he moved into the illusive position as Private Chef for the Robert Downey, Jr. family. Returning to the farm, dazed by the prospects, I frantically organized the bounty on a weathered table set on the edge of both the sunset view and the vines. Chef Charles was going to drive the two-hour round trip to the farm to view the produce and select something special to create recipes around. This was too good to be true. I returned home to research into the night.
Chef Voudouris appeared smiling over the steering wheel of a rental car. I nudged this squash and that, nervously telling the historic and culinary traditions of each one. He appraised the scene and hoisted the heft of Jere’s Thai pumpkin and Joe’s Ugandian squash. He playfully held the 40 pounds of squash up, comparing them to the size of his head. He had a recipe for the Thai pumpkin worked out in his head before even setting it in the trunk. His creativity was flowing forth as he enthusiastically shared his plan. As for the Ugandan one, Chef Voudouris proposed that it would sit as a centerpiece until he dreamed up a usage. We parted with future plans for me to sample the recipes as I guided him through the local farmers market.
I drove home filled with hope. The bold chef for which I had hoped had arrived. In the days ahead, I learned about how the squash were received, about how a private chef shops and plans, and just as important, what did Robert Downey, Jr. think of the squash creations? As we walked the markets, I learned about Downey’s production company, titled Team Downey, that was on the island. It sounded like a brain trust of creatives who shared food like family. The Downeys actively supported and celebrated all that was sustainably produced. As Chef Charles loaded his basket with guava, he was plotting culinary surprises that were vegan or vegetarian, and gluten free. Inspiration was palpable.
I was relieved and proud that the Ugandan squash was a much talked about centerpiece turned main course. I devoured kitchen photos that showed the exciting lives that my squash were now leading. Their 40 pounds were being whittled away into something divine each day. I had learned the splendor of flake salt, sampled Ugandan Squash Bisque, and was tutored on the nuances of flavor. I shadowed a chef who cares deeply for local produce and serves a client who celebrates uniqueness: a priceless gift for a farmer.
At week’s end, I received a note from Chef Charles directing me to a culinary goodie bag that was awaiting me at security. I opened a file image of Robert Downey, Jr. smiling over the heirloom Thai squash that he held to his chest like a heart, with Iron Man’s caption reading simply ‘Iron Squash.’ It was a gift for the farm scrapbook. Both acts were unexpected and kind. Blurry eyed, I loaded up the dog and drove to the place where they once were. Collecting the goodies of a gracious chef, I sat in the convertible, dining on Squash 3-ways as the sun disappeared into the Pacific. Months later, a boy stood with mouth agape at a movie poster image of Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man. He flashed an excited look at me as I carried pumpkins out from the library show-and-tell presentation. He made the squash/superhero connection. Many now knew that Iron Man eats his vegetables, and not just any, but ones from Hawaii. This lore would now be woven into the tapestry of these squash. My mind flashed to the smiling Ugandan farmer and the many who helped those five rare seeds to have a trans-global adventure. I smiled back at the little one, filling his cupped hands with seeds, so to begin yet another story.
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