On Cucumbers

I planted my first cucumber seed when I was three. At least that’s how the family story goes. While “helping” my mother in the garden shortly before we left for the summer, I was given a packet of cucumber seeds to hold, and managed to sprinkle them, without anyone realizing, among my father’s tea roses. We returned in August to a scene from Little Shop of Horrors: vines everywhere, crawling up and over the railing of the back stoop and along the fence, overwhelming the helpful, thorny roses with enormous cucumbers. My father hated cucumbers.

The image of vines strung across my father’s roses, cucumbers hanging like odd laundry, kept me from growing them until recently—the fear they would take over the garden, choke their neighbors in the night. Another memory contributed to my reluctance to plant them, this one from another impressionable time– the first month of married life– after we had settled on the other side of Vermont in a drafty barn (it sounds more romantic than it was after a string of minus-25-degree days when even the toilet water froze). While my husband was at school that late summer, I fiercely set myself to the task of splitting and stacking the five cords of wood piled in front of the house–to the amusement of the entire village, especially our neighbor, a retired electrician who tried to bring us some deep-country common sense. As I whacked away at wood, he worked in his garden next to our barn. Every afternoon he’d stop on his way home with a large, shallow basket filled with gorgeous vegetables. I’d quit my splitting to receive his gifts bashfully—I had nothing to give him in return. He’d wink as he handed me a few tomatoes, a cabbage, a clutch of carrots and all the cucumbers—heaps of them each day. When I finally protested, he shrugged and said he didn’t like cucumbers. I asked why he grew them.

“It sure beats splitting wood,” he smiled and went on his way.

Embarrassed and with armfuls of cucumbers (and little experience with them as my father’s aversion had kept them out of my childhood kitchen), I did the only logical thing—pickled them so I could return a gift—a dismal failure as I slaughtered batch upon batch. Indeed, I’ve never made a decent pickle, and have come to let my talented friends and farmers’ market stock my shelves with tiny, scrumptious cornichons, sweet chips, and sour dill spears.

But I’ve gotten over my fear of growing them. I put in a couple of plants every year—making sure they have their own growing supports– and think of that little girl and that old gardener as the vines make their way up the trellises. In the kitchen I’m discovering the delights of chilled cucumber concoctions: Spanish gazpacho, Asian salads of paper-thin cucumber discs, and best of all, an incredible Greek tzatziki.

As I open up my sense of what can be grown in my garden and contribute to my kitchen, I’ve started reading up on cucumbers. Because I never gave them a starring role in my culinary and horticulture expeditions, I assumed they would take a minor place in history. But that’s not so. History has a lot to say about the lowly vegetable—its taste, its growth habits and culinary importance from ancient India to Tiberian Rome, from Charlemagne’s France to Jacques Cartier’s Quebec. Every cookbook on my shelf includes cucumbers; natural remedy books list their soothing properties for skin and eyes, internet sites abound with cucumber tips (how to make them less bitter, grow them better, solve pickling problems). It turns out that my father hated cucumbers not because they nearly destroyed his roses but due to an organic compound that makes them repugnant to some. What a relief.

This year I’m throwing caution—or at least my old prejudices–to the winds and growing three varieties: long seedless English and lemon cucumbers as well as for old time’s sake, a seed or two of the old-fashioned kind and watch them just try to take over. And if I spend a long night worrying about them turning into something out of Little Shop of Horrors, I’ll calmly go out to the sleep-offending vine, chop off a cucumber, slice it into thin discs for a salad or soup, save two out to apply to my puffy eyes as I take a snooze on the chaise lounge. Sweet revenge.

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