Zucchini (no substitute)

‘Sorry no Colly Spuds and / Broc instead’ is scrawled on the box left yesterday out front. It was the second Saturday of the month: usually, the day for the Kyneton Farmers Market. No matter the forecast, stallholders and locals brave the unplanted church grounds in Piper Street, exchanging news and handshakes, coins and banknotes, dirt and air … . Usually. While stage 3 restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 continue, enterprising farmers and producers are delivering their small luxuries and hale produce door-to-door. Under the banner Small Farmers United they’ve formed a collective, and when a van rolled into the driveway yesterday I felt I should salute. The Broc is a deep green posy of tight buds. It’s easily an alternative to Colly. After all, ‘quarantine cooking’ is the practice of making bold or spontaneous substitutions for ingredients we don’t have.

‘Sorry no Colly’ surprised. Zucchini, I knew when ordering, is no longer in season in Victoria. Of course, it’s a summer vegetable. Yet the last one from the garden, discovered at the end of April, seemed like a gift from another epoch. Another existence, even, oblivious to patterns of Earth’s disease ecology; with no experience of Zoom fatigue; dull to hopes for wellbeing in the world—shared hopes, impatient, extravagant, readily made light of.

Those were more ordinary days, when it seems more of us were able to forget, over and over, our belonging to the basic laws of living matter, plant and animal. Back then, I hadn’t read about German chancellor Angela Merkel’s background in quantum chemistry; hadn’t heard that, in Punjab, ozone pollution has been effacing views of the Himalayas for decades. I didn’t appreciate how simple words like ‘face’, ‘case’ and ‘cluster’, ‘distancing’ and ‘downturn’ could keep carrying such grief … and how the necessary quiet can be so close. There it was, just under the silvery, drooping leaves of the zucchini plant, a last fruit, shining and unblemished. Sweet enough to slice raw, for a salad spiced with fresh oregano or thyme.

Peter Balakian’s recent poem ‘Zucchini’ (The New Yorker, 2 March 2020, pp. 50–51) sensitised me to the breathable joy of that late, unlooked-for harvest. Written before pandemic-related crisis and lockdown, ‘Zucchini’ works as prophecy, too: it first found me in mid-March, in the week when the Minister for Health declared a state of emergency in Victoria. The poem begins and ends with poignant evocations of a home kitchen, where bodies are centred by family rites of cooking. The kitchen’s fragrant intimacy allows the asking of an impossible question—‘Can holding on to this image / help me make sense of time?’. These lines turn the poem’s full attention to the irresistible and volatile forces of the natural world, and, by implication, those of human history.

The gleam of ‘glass façades, highways of glistening money’, remembered or dreamed, is countered by the kitchen as source of ‘a small light at the bottom of the stairs’, ‘waiting’, after ‘we wake to find the hallway dark’. The kitchen proffers ‘cold water to bring on the day’, while restoring the task of making sense of time to a domestic, personal scale. I listen to the poem. Inhale its atmospheres, take the cold water. Firmly, kindly, I’m reminded that suffering, confusion, and solace invariably coexist.

Is it ever safe to substitute one vaccine for another? There are few substitutes for the jostling fellowship of a farmers market, or the tough play of city crowds. There are none for the warm embrace of dear ones who live apart. None for the poem that feeds faith in imagination as shattering news rolls on. Daily, more gratitude, then, for poetry—and for any uncomplicated substitution that succeeds. In this home kitchen, today, ‘Broc instead’ is just fine.