When my sister and I were young, my Mom worked hard to pass on her few domestic skills to us. I remember her teaching me how to make french toast, how to take a blood stain out of a favorite pair of pants, how to sew a button onto a new blouse. One of my favorite memories, though, is making zucchini bread.
I can remember every step of the process, from the garden my parents tended in our spacious backyard every summer, to the warm, sweet smelling loaf. If you’re from Kentucky, you know, the first Saturday of May is the Derby, the second Saturday of May is for planting. Every year, without fail, my Dad tilled the deep brown earth into perfect, symmetrical lines. Then my mom, and some years my sister and I, would walk along the rows and put these adorable baby starter plants into indentations carved by our thumbs.
Every morning of our summer break, before the heat and humidity of Kentucky summers made it miserable to do anything, we would grab a wicker basket and gather the red tomatoes, plump and firm in our hands, the yellow squash, just as pretty as the blooms they were born from, and of course, the zucchini. I’ve often wondered if it was just our soil, or a Kentucky thing, but the zucchini grew the best. Within weeks we had deep green, gorgeous zucchini, as big as your forearm.
When you have pounds and pounds of zucchini sitting around, you have to get creative to get rid of it. People don’t realize how versatile zucchini is, either. You can fry it, bake it, grill it. It can be sweet, spicy or savory. It can give you different textures depending on how you treat it, but it always tastes good. I can remember our kitchen counters, and eventually table, too, having stacks of multicolored vegetables, a cornucopia kitchen. We had to get creative in reclaiming our space.
By August, we were all tired of zucchini. People stopped accepting our gourds as gifts and held their hands up in surrender. No more zucchini! That’s when the baking would begin. I’ll be honest, Mom and Dad did the bulk of the work when it came to the garden, but when it came to the baking, Allison and I stepped up. Mom would announce, usually on a day when we were stuck inside by rain or sweltering heat, that we would be making zucchini bread. My mom is not known for her cooking. She will freely admit that. But she makes a mean zucchini bread, and luckily, she passed that recipe on.
On these Zucchini days, we would pull every loaf pan in our house out and line them up in an anticipatory row, the aluminum disposable ones sitting next to the glass and the blue cornflower patterned ones that make me think of ancestry and heritage and recipes passed down for generations. The goal here was to make an assembly line, efficiently filling, baking, and pulling the loaves from counter to oven and back up to counter.
The real bulk of the work, though, came from peeling and grating zucchini. Allison and I would sit at the kitchen table, one of us with a trash can in between our knees, peeling zucchini and revealing its soft, white-green insides. The other sister would balance a big bowl on her lap and grate zucchini into it until our hands ached and our fingers were shiny and red. Mom would play the same albums that stand as a soundtrack of my childhood, The Beatles, Sheryl Crow, Dido, and Van Morrison.
Once we had grated our weight in zucchini, mom would supervise the measuring and mixing. My mother, who claims to be terrible at math, taught me how to add and convert fractions as she explained why we should make a double or triple batch to speed up the baking process. Filling our assorted loaf pans with thick, cream batter and sliding them long-ways into the oven was always deeply satisfying. The smell that filled our entire house was warmth and cinnamon and melted brown sugar. Everyone’s mouth was watering on the whole block by the time the first batch was done. The first couple loaves never even made it to the cooling rack, as we all burnt our fingertips and tongues on the soft, sweet, spongy bread.
What I remember most about zucchini bread, though, is giving it away. After it had cooled and been covered in plastic wrap and, sometimes, tied with a bow, Allison and I were instructed to go to our neighbors and give them bread. I remember one neighbor, an elderly, widowed woman, was always so happy to see us. We would also walk in and sit with her for a little while. Through these visits, and many more instances in my life, my Mom taught me to be kind to everyone. Zucchini bread taught me to put love and care into baking. It taught me to have and show gratitude when cooking, because it is an opportunity to feed yourself, your loved ones, and your soul.