In the picture I saw on Twitter, the crown roast of squash looked bright, glossy and a little garish. Acorn squash formed the center, and slices of butternut made the “bones.” It was stuffed and studded with cranberries. The ends of each squash slice wore fringed white paper bracelets. I loved it right away. I was supposed to bring a more ordinary vegetarian dish — maybe a spinach gratin or some roasted Brussels sprouts — to Thanksgiving dinner, but I couldn’t get that splendid, vertical crown roast out of my mind.
Hosts often ask me to bring meat-free dishes because my 12-year-old daughter, Macie, is a vegetarian and has been since she was 9 years old. At the time, I thought she was a little young to make such a big choice, but she’s always been very clear about what she likes and doesn’t like — the sort of child whose permission you seek before writing about her. I suggested we take each meal on a case-by-case basis. You didn’t have to give it a label, just eat what you want, her father told her. But Macie didn’t budge. She was a vegetarian. At one point, I asked her why.
“I don’t think I want to tell you why, because you’ll get sad,” she said.
“Try me,” I said, all bluff confidence.
“I can see it pulsing,” she said.
I got pretty sad.
“Even the turkey that’s in a sheet.”
“Okay,” I said. “I understand.”
“Bacon, too,” she said. “Bacon pulses where the stripes are.”
Our pediatrician said it was fine for Macie to be a vegetarian as long as she ate plenty of eggs and beans. A nutritionist agreed, cautioning me against an apparently common overreliance on highly processed vegan sausage patties, which the whole family had already taken to with gusto. It was as if the nutritionist could see three hours into the past, when I’d baked up a big batch and passed them out on buttered English muffins.
Reassured by professionals, I was still concerned with the scrutiny Macie gave some food. She isn’t a vegan, but unlike many child vegetarians who eat the occasional gelatin-based gummy bear or marshmallow, she won’t touch those things. Sometimes, I think not eating animals has given her some of their powers. Once, she ordered macaroni and cheese in a restaurant and detected chicken broth by smelling it.
Macie might have developed those skills because she spends a lot of time with animals. She isn’t particularly sentimental about them, though. She doesn’t dress the dog in shirts or name the fish in the tank. Instead, she likes to study them scientifically — examining animal skulls, reading up on how traits develop. She admires them, revering their innate grace and instinctual wisdom. And she helps them out when she can. She lobbied for steps so our old dog could get up on the bed. When she plays with the one-eyed cat that lives around the corner, she makes sure to dangle the ribbons on his good side first.
All of this was running through my head as I thought of the wonder the crown roast would evoke. A triumphant festival dish, hold the animals. As I debated what platter I’d serve it on — I was thinking metal for maximum brilliance — I got an email. Thanksgiving no longer needed a vegetable. Now the request was for two pies.
I like making pies as much as the next guy, but I was crestfallen. I thought about making my first choice anyway. What else would I do with the giant squash in the pantry? But then I was distracted by another, more probing question. Why had this complex, rococo crown roast of squash taken on such importance? What compelled me to order those little paper cuffs — they’re called regency frills, in case you’re wondering — online before I’d even finished reading the recipe?
As I cubed the squash, now destined to go in some muffins, I wondered if the crown roast appealed to me because it was hard — borderline impossible, from the looks of it — to make. You had to stab the cranberries with little toothpicks, cut everything with architectural exactitude, and do some pretty fancy overlapping to achieve the effect I’d so admired.
But it wasn’t just the challenge. Maybe this whole thing goes back to when Macie first stopped eating meat. We both know that I don’t understand vegetarianism the way she does. Making a baroque dish out of members of the Cucurbitaceae family seemed like the way to show her that her decisions don’t make me sad at all.
It was as if I had finally found the unit of measurement to demonstrate how much I respected Macie’s vegetarian self: a whole crown roast of squash’s worth.
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