College students have a knack for turning just about any occasion into a party. So one fall evening when Jill Nienhiser and her roommates at St. John's College in Annapolis came home from separate shopping trips bearing a variety of squash, Squash Night was born.
"There were four of us at a table in this little house, with plastic over the windows to keep out the draft," says Annemarie Catania, one of the original Squash Nighters.
Almost a decade later, Nienhiser is hosting a Squash Night revival at her Alexandria home, which is decidedly comfier than her college digs. One thing hasn't changed: The humble vegetable remains the star of the show. Savory or sweet, the versatile squash dominates every dish -- casseroles, hummus, even a fudge that swaps canned pumpkin for chocolate.
Nienhiser, 35, is finishing sauteing a batch of zucchini cakes in a cast-iron skillet as guests begin to arrive. The golden cakes are plump, crispy on the outside and more flavorful than one might expect, thanks to a good shake of sea salt, plus cayenne pepper and some minced onion. Nienhiser sets them on a platter, and the treats are devoured.
Guests wash down the savory snack with one of several varieties of pumpkin ale found in an overflowing cooler. Many breweries, including Delaware-based Dogfish Head, offer pumpkin beer as a seasonal special -- perfect for the evening's theme.
The party is a potluck in keeping with the spirit of the first Squash Night, when each roommate prepared a dish to share. While only two of the four original roommates are here, the guest list has gotten longer. "We've expanded to co-workers, friends, neighbors, other people's friends," Nienhiser says.
Although it's a more grown-up affair these days, Squash Night still retains elements of fun and spontaneity -- there's one guest that Nienhiser met in an aisle of the local Whole Foods and recruited to join the party. And she has altered her chef's apron that reads "If you don't like the food, drink more wine" by safety-pinning the word "squash" over "food."
Jill Tulo, a co-worker of Nienhiser's, invented her dish -- a sweet baked squash concoction -- when she received a giant hook-shaped cashew squash from her community-supported agriculture cooperative in the Plains. "I thought 'what am I going to do with this?' " she says. "I just started adding things." The result is a silky, cinnamon-scented dessert.
Squash also serves as decor. Nienhiser tops tables with casual arrangements of the vegetable known for its variety of shapes. She leaves the grocer's stickers clinging to the skin, so that curious partygoers can admire the unusual varieties she's collected. There is the gold nugget, which resembles a small, knobby pumpkin; kabocha, a wide, mottled green specimen; and spiny carnival acorn, with multicolored ridges.
Fall colors abound, from the warm terra-cotta walls to the glowing amber glass serving plates, and Smashing Pumpkins tunes float from the speakers. Clearly, guests have bought into the evening's theme in all ways but one: "Every year, Jill tells people in the invitation to dress up in squash costumes," Catania says, surveying the jeans-clad crowd who are happy just to be downing squash-laden foods. "No one ever has."
There's always next year.