What can you do with a zucchini that big?
July is a month for zucchini. The plants occupying the three hills in my garden have grown leafy and huge, and we’re close to overrun. I’ve been trying to harvest the squash while they’re still slender, sweet and small, delicious served sliced up with other veggies over rice or pasta. Those that grow a little larger might be grated into muffins or hollowed out and stuffed. But as always happens, a couple will hide under the stems and leaves and flowers and grow to be a foot or more, thick in the center and no longer sweet.
These enormous zucchini are a delight. In years when I haven’t had zucchini in the garden, I’m happy to purchase that extra-large singleton left in the farmer’s market booth after all the little ones have been snatched up. Back in my kitchen I’ll grate it into a colander in the sink, mix salt through with my hands, and place a salad plate on the mound of zucchini, weighing the plate down with something heavy to squeeze out the excess moisture. An hour or so later, I’ll heat a pan, add olive oil or sesame oil, and stir the grated zucchini quickly until it’s hot throughout. It’s one of the dishes I look forward to each summer.
I used to have a different response to overly large zucchini—they were the ones someone might use by default after all of the little ones were gone, the ones that got away. Then one day, years ago, I was over at my friend Michele’s house and she had some thick, overgrown zucchinis on the kitchen counter. “Oh, those are huge,” I said. “Too bad.”
She looked surprised and laughed. And then she both told me and made for me the recipe for grated zucchini. I couldn’t believe how delicious zucchini could be.
Michele cooks and bakes brilliantly. I count among my go-to recipes four from her kitchen: the zucchini, of course; a pressed quiche crust that’s ready in a snap; my family’s favorite choco-dot pumpkin cake; and a recipe for Thai pasta salad, the origins of which I used as an explanation for why citing sources is imperative in a teaching demonstration. I got the job. In the years since, I feel sure that Michele has expanded her repertoire and created new favorites. I personally don’t know. Michele and I were once so close that it felt right to ask her to be matron of honor at my wedding. We haven’t spoken for eight years.
It’s possible that friendships can become overgrown, pithy and wooden like neglected zucchini. Life and circumstances change. People move, switch jobs, retire. In the case of my extraordinary friendship with Michele, it started the moment we met—she wore a bright pink dress and was beautifully bronze on a July day in New York. She was the only woman on a six-person committee interviewing me for my first full-time teaching position and I thought, I like her. If I get this job, we’ll be friends.
I was 25; Michele was the most recently hired full-timer in the English Department at Suffolk Community College and she’d been there 17 years when they hired me. In spite of our age difference, we did become friends, fast friends, supportive colleagues, and writing partners. Although we traveled together to conferences to present papers, oversaw the honors program together, and shared an office, Michele was more like a big sister than a mentor. We celebrated birthdays and holidays, enjoyed family dinners and threw a couple of memorable parties. We traded recipes; we lived and wrote stories.
When my husband and I left Long Island for Bethesda, MD, I knew from many, many moves in the past that it would be a surprise who hung in as a long-distance friend and who was absorbed back into his or her world, the friendship first dwindling to Christmas cards and ultimately to no contact at all. I never dreamed that the care and feeding of my friendship with Michele would suffer dramatically and that in a series of unfortunate miscommunications as major life-events washed over each of our lives, our friendship would crumble beyond repair.
Of all of the heartbreak I have known, reading an email from Michele that spelled out in her eyes the way I had let her down is one of the saddest moments in my life. I wished for an opportunity to explain, but I could see that for her nothing I said would change the way she felt. So instead I did the only thing I could see to do, I wrote back that I would give her what she was asking for and walk away. We would no longer be in each other’s lives in any way.
For a while, mutual friends gave me updates on Michele. Harnessing the power of the Internet, I’ve searched for her from time to time. The twin aches of missing her and mourning a magnificent friendship ebb and flow, not unlike grief. Over the years I’ve found new homes for gifts she gave me. But I treasure deeply authors for whom we shared a love, the writing we did together, and those recipes she passed on to me. In recreating the recipes I find familiar comforting flavors, a connection to my own past, and lovely memories.
This morning I picked a generous zucchini—soon I will grate it, mix it through with salt, and weigh it down with whatever I can find at hand. I’ll think of Michele, the one who got away, the dearest friend I will always wonder about. The one to whom I wish I could say, I’m sorry I let you down. I never meant to.
Happy New Moon (7/30). Here’s to new beginnings alongside that moon, Rxo