In August, there are some things you can always count on: complaints about the heat, gripes about the humidity and kvetching about zucchini.
It's a rite of summer. The heat and the zucchini crop hit their peak this month, and cooks and gardeners often view both occurrences with something approaching dread.
"Going zucchini crazy" is how blogger Ed Hawco, on his Blork site, described an overabundance of zucchini and the marathon eating binge that followed. The Gardener's Network Web site listed its "top 10 signs you have too much zucchini," including "spraying your zucchini plants with sugar water so the insects will eat them."
And then there are, of course, all the urban myths (or should it be rural myths?) about anonymous bags of zucchini left on neighbors' doorsteps, in unlocked cars or stuffed into mailboxes.
Maryland farmer Beckie Gurley, however, has a better idea. Her family has instituted a squash put. That's squash put, as in shot put, but with zucchini.
She and her husband, Jack, own Calvert's Gift Farm in Sparks, Md., north of Baltimore. On their five acres, they grow certified organic vegetables, including five varieties of zucchini, plus summer squash, which they sell at the farmers markets in Takoma Park and Bel Air, Md., as well as to several Baltimore restaurants. They also have about 50 subscription customers who receive weekly veggie selections as part of the federal Community Supported Agriculture program.
Last month, the Gurleys hosted what they hope will become an annual event -- the Calvert's Gift Farm Squash Fest, in honor of the much-maligned vegetable. They invited friends, family and their CSA customers to bring their favorite squash dish for the food judging, as well as to compete in a squash relay race, squash carving competition and -- the favorite event of the 50 or so guests -- the squash put.
Gurley admits that the not-quite-Olympic-style competition was rather free-form. Markers were set up every 20 feet and zucchinis were handed out, "but we were having so much fun, we forgot to divide up the women, children and men" so we could hand out awards in each category, she says.
No matter. Guests warmed up their throwing arms and hurled their big green zukes as far as they could.
The winner: Gurley's 16-year-old nephew, Christopher Greene, whose zucchini traveled 120 feet.
In the food competition, Gurley says there were 27 entries, including zucchini cake, quiche, fried squash blossoms, zucchini corn fritters, pasta salad, crab dip, enchiladas, zucchini frittata, and squash and venison sausage casserole. There was even a sweet yellow squash and basil ice cream.
Gurley says her family eats squash in one form or another "every day through September." And, she claims, they don't get sick of it.
"Last night I made pasta primavera. The night before I grilled it with olive oil, then tossed it with feta cheese and basil. We grow garlic, so I also saute zucchini with lots of onions and garlic," she says.
Her children, ages 9 and 7, like zucchini most ways except grilled. "They don't like the black marks," Gurley says.
Although total squash production in the United States has remained fairly stable for the past four years -- about 52,000 acres harvested annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Statistics Service -- the number of zucchini varieties available to home growers has increased.
Burpee Seed Co., of Warminster, Pa., one of the largest seed companies in the country, offers 20 varieties of zucchini seeds through its catalogues and online. In 1969, the company offered fewer than 10.
While the dark-green, cylindrical zucchini is probably most familiar to consumers, other colors and shapes are showing up this summer at area farmers markets.
Many produce growers are touting light-green varieties -- Grey and Revenue in particular -- because of their thinner skin and sweeter flavor.
The Gurleys also grow Gold Rush, a gold-colored zucchini, and Ronde de Nice, a softball-shaped zucchini.
Small is also big this summer, says Beckie Gurley. "No one wants the big zucchinis. They want mini or small squash, because the skin is tender and the seeds are smaller."
Even she doesn't want the baseball bat-sized zucchinis. "If we get any of those huge ones," she says, "they go straight to the compost pile."
Unless, that is, they're needed for squash put practice.