I have a confession. I am not a foodie. I eat to live. I don’t live to eat. I don’t spend hours browsing cookbooks, nor do I show up at clandestine parking lots in the wee hours of the morning to nab quality produce. And although I wish it was different, cooking, for me, is a job, not a joy.
So when I was writing The Unlikely Gift of Treasure Blume, and discovered that the love interest, Dennis Cameron, was an ex-chef who was now working in a school cafeteria, I was in totally new territory. Short of watching Top Chef, I didn’t have any experience with gourmet grub. I had to learn a new vocabulary for all his dialogue. Dennis thought and spoke in food metaphors. I did not. And so, like any good author, I started doing research. I lurked on foodie blogs, googling terms I’d only heard in passing: ragout, sous chef, risotto, and yes, even Turducken.
For Dennis, food is love. It’s his way of creating art, and expressing his emotions. So while I wasn’t a foodie, I suddenly found myself fascinated with food. Foodlore and recipes expose so much about how people live and love. That’s what I wanted to come through in Dennis.
Dennis’s dishes revealed his character. The simplicity and quality of ingredients make him happy. That’s why he had such issues with the cafeteria food ( Side-bar: I wrote this before Michelle Obama launched her lunch-room reform campaign. Dennis would have been a fan. My children, used to chicken nuggets and cinnamon rolls in the lunchroom, are not. ) Dennis describes Treasure as spinach (a flattering comparison, in his estimation) and pictures beautiful bouquets of broccoli when he gets stressed out. And when he falls in love with Treasure Blume, he makes butternut squash boats that he calls “a love sonnet in a pot.”
“Tasty? said Dennis. “That’s all you can come up with?” He took a bite off the same spoon. “The cinnamon is home and holidays and warmth, and the chili powder is heat and passion and adventure. I’ve given you a love sonnet in a pot and all you can come up with is tasty?”
“Really tasty?” she said” (217).
This may be my favorite food bit in the book. I dug deep into my childhood to base these squash boats on a real family recipe. Unfoodie that I am, I do have foodie roots. Like Grammy Blume, I come from pioneer stock. My family recipes, handed down from generations of farmers and ranchers, feature simple ingredients and yield enough to feed the threshers. One recipe starts out “Kill and clean six stewing hens . . .” no joke! And so for Dennis’s love sonnet, I decided to use the recipe that meant love to me as a child.
This recipe has Dennis’s epicurean chef spin, but the heart of it is my grandmother’s hubbard squash pie recipe. We eat it at Thanksgiving while the rest of the world is eating pumpkin pie. In it, I replaced hubbard with butternut, because it’s so much more friendly and easier to use than hubbard. The skin is so thick and tough on a hubbard that the recipe begins with my grandmother’s admonition to split the squash with an axe. With butternut, you can skip the ax. Then you need to peel the rind, and clean the squash (if you’re my grandma, you save the seeds for the next year’s planting). Cut and cube, then boil until soft. Next, mill the squash (which is pushing the squash through a tough strainer with a big paddle).
Once you have your stewed and strained squash, the recipe for Dennis’s Love Sonnet Squash pie is easy:
2 cups stewed and strained squash
2 cups cream
1 teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon allspice
1 cup brown or granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
Mix squash with milk, sugar, beaten eggs, salt and spices. Beat for 2 minutes. Pour into pie tin lined with pastry, (or in the book, Dennis uses hollowed out squash shells). Bake at 450 for 15 minutes, then at 350 for 30 minutes. And in the end, you’ll have a creamy, custardy, earthy delicious piece of my family history, and Dennis’s love for Treasure Blume.