Recipe for a family bond: An ode to a pumpkin

Posted Nov 12th, 2012 in Eating Niagara

Recipe for a family bond: An ode to a pumpkin

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I watched as my cousin walked up to the cashier, basket of groceries in one hand and a small orange pumpkin in the other. With room in the basket, it struck me how he separated the small orange squash with its lopsided bit of curled stem from the rest of the groceries. I also wondered what he would do with it. He had only a couple more days in Zweibrücken, where we both were at the time of the great pumpkin purchase, before he'd return to his reality in London. And I, along with my husband Steve, had only a couple days beyond that before we would also be bidding adieu to Germany. We were there together this fall on short notice. Members of my family came from respective corners of this country and that continent to say good-bye to the matriarch of the Mayer clan; a woman who is, without question, loved, though there have been moments when that wasn't easy. She is admirable in many ways, and yet those same qualities we all grew to admire — and to which we credited her longevity — had once made her unbearable. Still, at 99 and three-quarter years, with a mind that could put most a third of her age to shame, and a stubbornness that convinced everyone she would outlive us all, my Oma was flagging. She was certain she was going to die and as she laid in a hospital bed, she begged for death to happen. It wasn't my favourite trip to a place that I love and, in typical Oma Mayer fashion, she cheated death, though I know she was the only one disappointed. For most of the week we were there, there was a heaviness to the days — hours of which would be spent at the hospital with her. There was a hollowness to any laughter, a worry about what the next day would bring. It was hard to imagine a world without her. And then there was this pumpkin. My cousin, who, until this visit, I had seen for no more than five minutes in the past 25 years, had grown into a person who, like our Oma, loved to cook and had shown himself to be quite good at it as the self-designated feeder of the family for many meals that week. But the pumpkin didn't fit with the easy albeit tasty pasta, or the no-nonsense lentil soup he made us. It seemed too labour intensive for an occasion that made simplicity a necessity. We were also guaranteed to be fed at least a few more times by others, be it by family or restaurants, so even finding the time to prepare it proved a conundrum. He brought the pumpkin back to my Oma's house where we were staying and set it on the counter, where it spent the next few days. When nothing became of it, I started to wonder if England was a squash-free zone and whether he would smuggle that sucker back home with him. And then late one night — or early one morning, depending on your perspective — over heavy conversation and family secrets revealed by too much Gewürztraminer, Riesling and vodka, the pumpkin's purpose was realized. My cousin stood up in my Oma's kitchen, the birthplace of many great meals, and announced he wanted to cook. It was a surprise that broke through the heaviness like the hull of an ice breaker through a frozen sea. "This place needs new karma," he proclaimed, looking around before reaching for the pumpkin. We all stood up, my sister, husband and I, and gathered around as he took knife to gourd and sliced into it like he was offering it up as a sacrifice to a deity he seemed so eager to please and have grant us a lightness he clearly craved in that moment — that we all did. With each cut of the blade through bumpy, orange squash skin, he cut apart that pumpkin and brought our family together. "What are we going to do with this?" I asked. "We'll make risotto and soup," he said. So we mixed and blended, added wine and made the most of the two spices my Oma had: salt and pepper. My sister and I diligently stirred the respective pots to which we were assigned while our cousin hovered over us, making sure we stayed on top of the task at hand. In the moments we could take our eyes off the stove, we laughed at the ridiculousness of it all, danced around in pajamas, wooden spoons waving wildly in the air to the sounds of the Beastie Boys pouring out of the portable speaker attached to my sister's iPod. The odds were stacked against that soup and risotto, though. We were drunk on wine, drained by emotion and plagued with fatigue as the clock neared 2 a.m. But on we stirred and danced. And when we finally finished, the only person who was hungry was my husband Steve. He went for the risotto and told us it wasn't bad. And it wasn't. It was downright awful. So was the soup. I'd like to say we conjured up grand culinary creations that we would try to mimic again in those moments we sought comfort, lightness or cures for pumpkin cravings. If I did, though, it wouldn't be true. My cousin headed to Holland for a business meeting en route to London a few hours later. Two days after that, Steve and I said a tearful good-bye to a woman I was certain I would never see again and boarded a plane back to Canada. And the soup and risotto languished on a shelf in my Oma's icebox of a pantry where my aunt would find them eventually and throw them out. While I normally cringe at the thought of tossing food in the trash, I didn't this time because that pumpkin was far from wasted. While it didn't make the greatest gastronomical goodies, I would argue it made one of the best meals ever. Instead of making must-have risotto or soup, we conjured up the recipe for an unyielding family bond. **** For fail-safe pumpkin risotto, I like this recipe with sage, a perfect companion for pumpkin. For soup, I made this Thai pumpkin soup earlier this year and will undoubtedly be making it again this winter.


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