I do not remember the first time I fried zucchini. It is one of those activities which always just “happened” each summer in my family. My parents have always had a large garden which yields abundant zucchini. In addition to fried zucchini, Mom makes zucchini bread, zucchini soup and delicious zucchini chocolate cake. I enjoy eating all of them, but fried zucchini is the one dish which instantly transports me back to summers as a teenager in my parents’ house with Grandma DiNoto.
My father’s parents moved to Arizona when I was in sixth grade, but often came “back home” in the summer for a couple of weeks. After Grandpa died, Grandma came every year to stay for the entire summer. She made herself at home in the bedroom directly upstairs from my room, and I often heard her talking to herself through the heating duct which ran upstairs through my closet.
Grandma, Kate to her friends, wore bright red nail polish. Her hands shook with Parkinson-like tremors so she relied on a local beautician to do her nails. We would go to the shop together, and her nails would dry as Alice trimmed my hair. “Always have a good red nail polish,” she would say. “It will tell others who you are.”
Grandma enjoyed being busy, and would often go out into my parents’ garden to see what vegetables were ready to be harvested. She knew how to find value in everything, making fried dandelion greens and fritters with zucchini flowers. Grandma never knew how to read so she cooked and baked from memory, using her hands to tell her when recipes needed adjustment. “You know they’re ready when they feel like this,” she said as she plopped a meatball or cookie in my hand. “Don’t be afraid to add more of something if they don’t feel right.”
My mother had an electric frying pan and when it was time to fry zucchini, Grandma would bring the pan out to the garage and plug it in. According to my mother, this always took place on the hottest day of the year. “Hottest day of the year and we have to fry zucchini! Well, at least she’s here to do it for another summer.”
Grandma sliced the zucchini as the oil heated, humming along with the radio which sat on the windowsill. Before dropping squash slices in the hot oil, she tied a bandana around her forehead to catch the sweat and lined a plate with paper towels. The zucchini sizzled as it hit the oil. “That’s how you know it’s ready. If it doesn’t make that noise, you have to wait.”
Grandma stood by the frying pan, dropping slice after slice of zucchini into the oil. She would flip them as they browned occasionally stopping to wipe her forehead with a damp paper towel. I would sit in the green lawn chair usually reserved for her use and wait for her to tell me it was time to sample.
The first of bite of the freshly fried squash usually burned my tongue but I was always too eager to wait for it to completely cool. Grandma would urge me to be careful, shooing me away from the splattering oil. “Leave some for dinner! Your father will want some.”
When all the zucchini had been fried, and the pan cleaned and brought back to the kitchen, Grandma would return to the garage with her cigarettes and a whiskey sour. Mom did not permit smoking in the house so Grandma went out three times a day to indulge her habit. “Don’t ever start smoking Denise. You’ll never quit.”
This past week I received two zucchini in my weekly farm share. In addition, my friend Ronda brought me three more from her garden. I looked at the shiny green squash on my kitchen counter and knew exactly what to do with them. Even though it was the hottest day of the summer so far, I pulled out my largest frying pan and warmed the oil. It was the perfect time to fry zucchini. And although I had a gin and tonic after I was finished, I’m pretty sure Grandma would have approved.