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A Feast For the Eyes

Squash Resplendent, Making a Serious Point

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page H01


The wood fire glows comfortingly in the kitchen fireplace of Amy Goldman's 1788 farmhouse. A bowl of homegrown potato leek soup is placed on the table by the fire, and its nutty flavors instill the idea of the autumn harvest safely gathered, of a thanksgiving in its purest sense.

The white clapboard farmhouse sits in a hollow. Above it, Goldman has created decorative gardens, and a stylish greenhouse near a walled kitchen garden. Below, a lake reflects the season's streaky skies and points to a distant one-acre vegetable garden.

In her Hudson Valley farmhouse, Amy Goldman assess a squash harvest like few others. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

Bounded by stone walls and metal fences, the garden is clean and empty for the winter. But nothing rests for long under the watchful eye of Goldman, a psychologist, real estate heiress and philanthropist who has become the champion of the lowly garden vegetable.

She is concerned that we are losing the incredible diversity of vegetable varieties by not growing them. The argument is not new, but Goldman brings us a fresh and compelling reason to heed it: Vegetables are beautiful -- sensuous, glowing, beguiling, transcendent. All the adjectives one might assign supermodels. In short, Goldman has become the Eileen Ford of the vegetable plot.

In 2002, she wrote a book titled "Melons for the Passionate Grower" (Artisan Publishers, 176 pp., $25), which showcased fruit varieties grown at the farm and pictured by Victor Schrager, an established fine arts photographer in New York. Now, a larger and even more ambitious book about pumpkins and other squashes is out ("The Compleat Squash," Artisan, 214 pp., $40), the product of two more seasons of raising some 150 varieties of summer and (mostly) winter squash at the farm and selecting the best for immortality between its hard-bound covers.

The squashes, along with the melons before them, were posed in an on-site, makeshift studio in a tractor shed next to the garden. There's the rare Australian Triamble, gray-green and deeply lobed, and the intense orange Hubbard squash Victor, unspeakably knobbly. Or the bizarre, green-striped orange Turk's Turban. They glow for the camera like primped catwalk princesses. They are voluptuous and alluring. Pumpkin cheesecake, anyone?

Goldman, a director of Seed Savers Exchange, a seed preservation group in Decorah, Iowa, scoured sources for seeds to grow for the book and found such rarities as a pattypan squash named Benning's Green Tint and a cheese pumpkin named Virginia Mammoth. These she started in her greenhouse and set out in the warmth of late spring. For two seasons, Goldman grew the collected seeds, and at harvest time, Schrager arrived with all his gear, including a wooden, bellowed view-camera named a Deardorff.

When Goldman and Schrager first met to discuss their collaboration, they found themselves sharing the view that the books should be inspired by old botanicals, which provide a scientific record of their subjects but also capture their beauty and spirit.

Schrager arrived with images of 17th- and 18th-century still lifes as well as a recently published book of the work of a Victorian photographer, Charles Jones. Jones took amazing black-and-white photos of such things as peas in a pod and wrinkled Savoy cabbage.

But Jones's work is an anomaly, and even in the age of painting, vegetables were little regarded. Fruit, flowers, fungi -- nuts, even -- have captured the imaginations of Old Masters and botanical illustrators alike. Warty gourds have been passed over. Until now.

When others asked why they would go to this trouble, Schrager would say, "this is a work of botanical scholarship that no one else will do for a very long time and [Goldman] takes this mission very seriously."

Seriously but joyfully, and to the detached observer, perhaps, with a touch of eccentricity. Against earth-toned backdrops, the squashes were cast in a soft light by the use of a single studio lamp. Schrager's photographs have a narrow field of view so that the vegetables are held sharp in an otherwise blurry space. This draws out their volumes in a painterly way and gives them, Schrager says, a monumental quality.

While he worked in the studio, Goldman would bring in a newly harvested squash, wash it and stage it for the camera. But the lucky models were not oiled or brushed or otherwise overly preened nor subjected to photographic smoke and mirrors. "I'm not trying to tart them up," said Schrager. "I'm trying to celebrate them and reflect Amy's passionate enthusiasm for them."

Unlike most other vegetables, squash are as likely to be grown for their ornament or curiosity as for their food. Jack-o'-lanterns are notoriously poor pie fillers. And consider Atlantic Giant: The World Pumpkin Confederation sponsors an annual contest of mammoth pumpkins in which finalists routinely weigh above 1,000 pounds. Goldman likens them to "beached pumpkin carcasses" and declares them "not fit for human consumption."

Indeed, only a few squashes pass Goldman's high standards for culinary use; others are inferior in flavor, too fibrous, or suitable only for livestock. Which ones are good enough for the Thanksgiving table?

Jack-o'-lantern types fall under a species named Cucurbita pepo that has its culinary stars but is generally inferior to squashes of another species named Cucurbita maxima. The latter includes Blue Banana and Pink Banana, top-rated table vegetables. "When it comes to Bananas, the harder-rinded blues win out over the pinks every time," writes Goldman. "The champion, though, has to be Sibley, or Pike's Peak, which surpasses even Blue Banana in sweetness, texture and flavor."

The problem, Goldman adds, is that Banana squashes rarely surface in the marketplace, and if you want them, you have to track down a seed source and grow them yourself.

Among pumpkins for pie, she favors the aptly named variety Winter Luxury Pie. It makes, she says, "the smoothest and most velvety pumpkin pie I've ever had."

Among acorn squashes, she likes a 1913 variety named Table Queen; Gill's Golden Pippin (1954); and Thelma Sanders (1988). "Unfortunately," she writes, "the Acorns flooding the market today -- larger, more distinctly furrowed, and grown on bush or semibush plants [instead of vines] and harvested under-ripe -- are not nearly as good."

It is perhaps a measure of Goldman's obsession that she has begun taking some of her favorite varieties and having them cast as bronze pieces. Done initially for her own amusement, this has developed into a line of art pieces. Seventeen varieties have been cast and are being sold in limited numbers through Goldman's Web site, www.rareforms.com, and at Munder Skiles in New York (212-717-0150). Prices range from $700 to $4,500, said John Danzer, of Munder Skiles. Danzer already has sold 160 copies of the book from his Madison Avenue showroom. "When they see the book, they go nuts," he said, referring to the reaction to the photographs, "and then they realize they can have it permanently" in bronze.

If Thanksgiving marks a start of a winter hibernation for most of us, Goldman finds herself in the midst of another venture -- though "adventure" might be a better word for it: sourcing rare seeds of tomatoes to grow in the greenhouse this winter and then in the garden next summer.

At the end of this season, hundreds of tomato vines lay sprawling and fruited, like sots at a party that went on too long. Goldman picks a heavily lobed tomato named Zogola, an heirloom beefsteak variety. It is larger than her hand. "It's phenomenal," she says. "And delicious." Elsewhere, she is drawn to a plum tomato called Jersey Devil. It is about four times larger than any other paste tomato you have seen. How long, you wonder, before it winds up in Rubenesque repose before Schrager's camera?

"She does utter this terrible number," said Schrager. "One thousand." As in one thousand varieties of tomato to grow for a future book. "I look heavenward. But that's Amy. If she's going to do it, she wants to do it all the way."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company