This summer, we had a backyard vegetable garden that started out as… not tidy areas, but semi-specific small plots of tomato, lettuce, cucumber, carrot, kale, and pepper plants. I say “we” but my role ended at the point that I cleaned out an old Ikea toy bin and turned it on its side so we could use it as a shelving unit to germinate plants from seed. After that, things started happening with tin foil and purple lightbulbs and the cardboard tubes from toilet paper rolls and it seemed like a decent time for me to Step Aside. Because every day my husband would crouch over the little plants and “brush” them with the toilet paper roll while sort of murmuring. Why? Why would he do that?
I want to say he was doing it out of nervous tension, but it was actually to influence the height of the tomato stalks. According to Greenhouse Product News magazine, “plant brushing, sometimes called plant touching or mechanical conditioning…has been validated by growers who have implemented this strategy.” It has to do with plants releasing the plant hormone ethylene when they are moved by the wind or by people, and how that keeps them from getting leggy. I am also not 100% sure why you want short tomato plants except, oh yes, this is what our extremely aggressive tomato plants looked like in late September:
Earlier than that, by July, the cucumbers were presenting a delicious but upsetting daily encounter. Every morning, after one of us pushed aside the hairy leaves and the branches of the cucumber plants, at least one cucumber would just be there, full-sized and lolling on the dirt, as if it had been conjured overnight. I began to develop the mix of fatalism and dread that I imagine city park rangers experience. You don’t want to find a bloated corpse under a bush in the public park, but you expect one to be there, sometimes. The cucumbers ranged from enormous, torpedo-like albino giants to regulation-sized cucumbers to thorn-covered curlicues of very uneven thickness.
Twice in my life I have suddenly realized I was fully clothed on a nude or mostly-nude beach. Once I was in Provincetown where I’d decided to go to sit on the sand super early and read, and I looked up from a book after a couple hours and was the only female in sight, and the other beachgoers were pretty loudly NOT HAVING IT and I scurried away, and once I woke up from a nap on a beach in Vancouver after a wedding, and everybody was just naked in heaps on the dark gray sand by old logs. I applaud people who can flop around in public without clothes on, or at least from afar I do. But it’s definitely a vibe, and our backyard started to feel like a bad beachy afterparty, and I did stop hunting for the cucumbers. My son took up the task with an attitude I can only describe as demonic.
After that, the cherry tomato plants staged a massive tangly land grab. Maybe they were irritated by all the toilet paper tube brushing, or perhaps they wanted more of it? Because the cherry tomatoes began to lurch toward the house. And then they just crested and flopped over what had been a strawberry patch. Cherry tomatoes were everywhere, ripening and dropping, ripening and dropping. Never before would I imagine looking at freshly grown food and being like, “Nah, let’s just leave that there.” But so many tiny tomatoes ripened, split, and fell into the grass or the raised bed that it looked like we were purposely chumming for flies.
We did not grow zucchini or summer squash, and the cucumber and tomato blitz had shifted my sense of what amount is the right amount. Is the right amount just a huge pile? With no sense of proportion, all summer I kept buying too many zucchinis and then being like, “What can I possibly do with all this zucchini I bought on purpose?” The two teenage boys that I worked with on an organic farm one summer would let some zucchinis grow extra huge, then hollow them out, fill them with bug spray, make fuses, light them, screech off in the gator and watch them blow up from afar. But I was already wasting cherry tomatoes and leaving the creepier cucumbers around the kitchen at work, so after making every kind of recipe I could find that just involves some zucchini, I made a dish that is almost only zucchini: zucchini pancakes.
Mark Bittman, in “How to Cook Everything” describes zucchini pancakes as “a bit of work.” Should that have been a red flag? Yes. Was it? Nah. He also writes: “If you make four thick patties, they will be moist and tender; eight thin patties will be dry and crisp.” I understand what he is saying here. But the processional of images that accompanies reading that line includes heat lamps over beef, women of different body types at a drive-in in the 1950s, and then white wine. If it’s on hand, I will drink it! Not that adding an un-inhibitor to my cooking process is a good idea.
These days I clasp my hands behind my back and force myself to read recipes all the way through several times before I do anything. I believe that was what my second grade AIRS (I don’t remember what that acronym stands for) workbook told me to do and now, voila! I do it. Grate zucchini by hand, combine with egg, onion, flour or bread crumbs, cheese, salt, pepper “and herb.” Not herbs. Just: herb. Patty and Herb, getting groped by my eggy hands. Wonderful! “Shape into 4 to 8 burger-shaped patties.” I will shape them into shapes, thank you.
Then, motherfucker, refrigerate for an hour to firm them up. Yes, I read this beforehand. But beforehand was 6 p.m. already. Anyway, I decided the chilling was optional, or at least the amount of chilling time specified, and just let the pancakes rest for a few minutes on some clean dish towels. As they lay there, I checked an online recipe to see whether it advised chilling, and also to read the reviews where home cooks describe how they didn’t have five of the six ingredients and swapped out zucchini for pork, because so-and-so in the household just doesn’t eat vegetables but likes patties with dollops of cream. I also wanted to know whether home cooks stuck to the recommend “herb.” Dill was one suggestion. I wondered about swapping it out.
Would I want to swap it out for cumin? Maybe. In the same way that you might find bearded men at a brewery or Luc Besson might be interested in making films about murderous waif-like women or your pizza place’s garden salad might come with a quartered, rock-hard tomato and one whole pepperoncini, or Trump supporters that you know from high school, defending the no-soap-or-toothbrushes policy in $775/night taxpayer-funded child detention centers, might insist that they are “nice guys.” The answer is yes. It is yes. Cumin is not something I use as a spice. It’s just something I do. It’s like DJ Khaled shouting “DJ KHALED!” in every song. He doesn’t really mean it when he says, “We make the best muuusic;” he just doesn’t have any other ideas.
Then you have to dredge the pancakes – by this point in the recipe directions they’re cakes, not patties, according to Bittman – in flour or breadcrumbs. I guess a dredge is transformative. When you’re talking patties and cakes. No dredge: patties. Dredge: cakes! Room temperature, cumin-y cakes. Damp ones. Well, wet ones, actually. Bittman says the pancakes should “plop, but not be runny.” Mine did plop. Also they were a bit runny. Even I know that you don’t fry things in a small pool of water. And yet, couldn’t the heat from the pan evaporate the water, and then the frying could begin? But then after putting the leaky zucchini pancakes in the pan, I tried to sop up the excess water, first with paper towels, then with a heel of bread. Then I just forged ahead.
Forging ahead meant frantically altering the cooking temperature and digging at the pan with a spatula (even though Bittman says to cook, undisturbed) as I made patties that were thick, tender, dry, and crisp all at once. Because what everyone wants, mouth-feel-wise, is sogginess, sharpness, coldness, and hot crumbly char. You want to know, simultaneously, that an egg is tough, runny, and possibly curdled.
I guess I never “cook, undisturbed.” Also sometimes, if I have the chance to be alone in the kitchen in that period between cooking food and serving it, I quietly sing “Edelweiss” to myself while shifting my weight from foot to foot. I wish I were as dashing in a high-waisted sports jacket as 1965-era Christopher Plummer, but more fervently than that, at least on this one evening, I wished to provide my family enough time to flee over the hills before the pancakes could come for them. Although in actuality the Von Trapps took a train to Italy and did not hike to freedom, and Christopher Plummer reportedly hated “The Sound of Music” and was drunk during the theater scene.
With the same historicity as “The Sound of Music,” I tell you this: those zucchini pancakes did not go to waste. I gave them to this guy as poison: