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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Squash and Dash

June 10, 2020

The CFO of our company has a garden. She lives just outside the city limits on a small piece of land. They also have chickens and have raised hogs. Many mornings, when I arrive at the office, there are fresh eggs on my desk. Last week there was a sack of freshly picked squash sitting in my chair.

Squash doesn’t hold fond memories for me. I tried my hand at gardening once. It was in the late 1990s and the garden to the table movement had just launched in California. I was spending a week at the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa branch attending a flavor dynamics seminar when I first learned of the movement.

The Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) is housed in a beautiful building which once served as the Christian Brothers Winery in Greystone. The other chefs and I would arrive early in the morning and go out into the CIA’s meticulously manicured gardens and pick fresh vegetables and herbs.

In my mind’s eye, I can still envision that very picturesque and romantic scene. The early morning sun was rising over the Napa Hills and a light fog hung low and moved slowly across the ground. It was cool and crisp, and the air was clean and dry. The chefs were walking among the rows in their chef whites carrying wicker baskets and wearing toques. It looked like a scene out of a foodie magazine.

We would take the vegetables we had just picked inside to the massive and amazingly outfitted kitchens of the CIA. There we would prepare various dishes using what we had just picked from the garden. I loved that idea. It was a meaningful moment in my culinary career.

I came back home fired up and told my culinary team that we were about to be at the forefront of the garden to the table movement in Mississippi. “Think of the marketing possibilities,” I told them. “We’ll be the first in the state and take the lead in this new crusade.”

At the time, I owned land 20 miles outside of town. Within weeks of my return, I had planted a two-acre garden. The reader who has gardened knows that a two-acre garden is massive and unmanageable for one person, even a master gardener. I had never even grown a tomato in a pot. Every house plant I had ever purchased was dead. I had a yellow thumb. Still do.

But I was young, energetic, and ignorant. I planted all manner of heirloom vegetables, various eggplants, cucumbers, corn, several varieties of melon, and four 100-foot rows of squash.

Again, the reader who has gardened knows what’s coming next.

As a lifelong obsessive-compulsive, I did as I usually do and went overboard on the garden. I brought in an intricate electric fence and installed a complex irrigation system. It’s the exact garden I thought the leader in Mississippi’s garden to table movement should own.

I drove out to the garden every morning to make sure everything was going as planned on my two-acre plot. I can remember— when the first shoots were sprouting up from the ground— coming back to the restaurant and telling my crew, “It’s happening! This is going to save us so much money.”

Squash was the first crop to come in. I purchased 10 laundry baskets and filled all 10 baskets with squash on the first day. I was fired up. I brought them to the restaurant. The staff seemed impressed.

The next day, as I was driving out to the garden, I began to strategize— the squash came in yesterday, I wonder what is going to come in today.

Authors note: I am an educated man with a college degree. I’m not an idiot. But I will admit that, at that time, I thought that once vegetables come in once, that’s it. They’re done. Move on to the next item in the garden.

One can imagine my surprise as I walked out to my garden the next day and saw more squash. I remember thinking to myself, wow I am really good at this gardening thing. I grew squash two days in a row.

I picked more squash.

Though on the second day there seemed to be more squash hanging on the 400 linear feet of plants than there was the first day. I filled all 10 baskets again.

I took the squash back to the restaurant and my staff wasn’t quite as happy to see me the second day. We put squash in the beer cooler and in every available space we could find.

Readers who garden will know what I found in my garden the third day, the fourth day, and the fifth— more squash. I picked it. I came back to the restaurant with still more squash and they wouldn’t let me in the back door.

So, I took the squash to friends who were happy to see me. The first day. The second day most of my friends politely turned down the gifted squash and thanked me anyway. By the third day, they wouldn’t answer the door, so I just dumped squash on their doorstep, rang the doorbell, and ran. I invented the squash and dash.

Back at the restaurant, we were trying to figure out what to do with all of the squash. We were serving squash soup, sautéed squash as a vegetable of the day, stuffed squash, fried squash, and were working on a variation of squash ice cream.

The novelty and romanticism of gardening wore off quickly. As other crops began to come in on subsequent rows, my schedule at the restaurants got more hectic. The irrigation and the fertilizer were working too well. There was no fog rolling over the hills. There were no cool, crisp mornings. No chefs in toques. No wicker baskets. Just me in shorts and a sweat-soaked t-shirt with plastic laundry baskets, dodging snakes. The mornings were not cool and dry. Not even close. They were hot and humid and a world away from Napa Valley.

The one good thing that came out of my foray into the garden to the table movement was a baked shrimp and squash dish that I created. The inspiration for which came from a squash casserole my mother used to make.

I have always believed that my baked shrimp and squash recipe is a perfect example of Pineywoods cuisine. It makes use of shrimp harvested an hour south in the Gulf of Mexico, it has Creole seasonings from New Orleans and the Louisiana bayous 90 minutes to the southwest. And it draws its main ingredient from the South Mississippi garden.

I often serve this casserole in the summer as the only protein alongside various vegetables purchased at the farmers market. I no longer have a garden. My foray into the garden to the table movement lasted less than one season. My garden quickly went to seed. We still purchase locally when we can. But we let someone else do the gardening. For that, I am grateful.

This weeks’ recipe: RSJ’s Baked Shrimp and Squash

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