What Exactly Is the Deal with Zucchini?

published Aug 3, 2022
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grilled zucchini on a platter
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

Lately, my experience with zucchini has felt straight out of a Hitchcock movie. I walk my dog around the corner to spot a 30-foot-wide zucchini plant climbing menacingly over my neighbor’s lawn, blossoms yawning open like they’re about to speak, à la Alice in Wonderland. My front door creaks open to reveal my roommate touting a zucchini grown by her boyfriend that’s the size of a toy dachshund. I lock the doors to keep out neighbors gifting me home-grown squash, but it’s too late. It’s August and zucchini are everywhere.

A quick Google search reveals more than a few startlingly subliminal opinions about the summer veg: “10 Things To Do With Zucchini When You’ve Lost All Hope,” “5 Absolute Wildcard Recipes To Keep Zucchini Fatigue At Bay,” “What The Heck Do I Do With This Zucchini?”, “Best Zucchini Recipes For Using up All Your Darn Zucchini.” Unlike tomatoes and strawberries or other seasonal produce, zucchini are something we’re always struggling to “use up,” implying some sort of wild, uncontrollable oversupply.

So what exactly is the deal with zucchini? Walking around my neighborhood farmers market, I saw stands picked clean of zucchini — a sight that begged all sorts of questions. Are we all quietly obsessed with zucchini? Is there an oversupply of zucchini we should be talking about? Are people really batting away zucchini with brooms? Or is it all just urban legend? I spoke with small farmers, home gardeners, and permaculturists to get to the root of all my zucchini questions. Here’s what I discovered.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

The “too much” zucchini storyline has been around for decades.

Every major online food publication, including Epicurious, Bon Appetit, and Food Network (and yes, Kitchn!) highlights a wave of zucchini we can’t escape from. And it’s hardly a new trend. I found a New York Times article written by food writer Florence Fabricant in 1980, titled “When Your Problem Is Too Much Zucchini.” She, too, waxed poetic about how zucchini enters the media zeitgeist. “We are as deluged with zucchini cookbooks as we are with zucchini,” she writes before noting that even Planned Parenthood published a zucchini cookbook. “That a Planned Parenthood group saw fit to promote a vegetable as prolific as zucchini in a fundraising cookbook certainly gives pause for thought,” she quips.

“Zucchini season is the only time we’d lock our doors in the Midwest, or else a ‘kind neighbor’ would bring in more.”

— Farmer Whitney Sewell

And it’s true: Zucchini grows incredibly fast, often yielding too much for the home gardener. With each zucchini plant capable of producing six to 10 pounds of zucchini each growing season, it’s easy to see how harvesting zucchini quickly becomes a game of Whack-a-Mole. Many I interviewed stated that if they didn’t check their zucchini plant every single day (and turn over every leaf) their zucchini would overtake their garden beds, leading many to eventually tear out the plant at the end of the season and never grow them again. 

“Folks somehow seem surprised when their plants produce a few pounds of zucchini each, as if there’s some sort of devious squash conspiracy going on,” says Suzanne Podhaizer, chef and owner of Haven Hearth and Homestead based in Vermont.

“Zucchini season is the only time we’d lock our doors in the Midwest, or else a ‘kind neighbor’ would bring in more,” says Whitney Sewell, a farmer now based in North Carolina. “If the doors were locked, they’d still leave a bag on the door handle or even by the car.” A holiday for this phenomenon exists, appropriately called National Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Day. (It’s on August 8, if you’d like to celebrate) No surprise, zucchini is even the butt of an old Vermont joke: “You can spot an out-of-towner when you see him in the produce aisle buying zucchini.”

It’s important to note the language used to describe zucchini highlights a more-than-obvious privilege.

When I think about how history might archive the internet, it’s important to note the language used to describe zucchini highlights a more-than-obvious privilege. Only certain socioeconomic groups can “complain” about too much zucchini (those with land, backyards, community plots, CSA subscriptions), which leaves out large parts of the country where communities have less access to fresh food.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that maybe food industry tastemakers could be a bit tone deaf to the lived experience of many experiencing food insecurity. Complaining about abundance isn’t a new idea, but it’s important to note how certain media outlets document this phenomenon and how “too much” zucchini isn’t as movable a feast as we might think.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

Perhaps we need to rethink how we talk about zucchini.

Zucchini has so much pressure, honestly. It never really gets to be ephemeral. We let it grow way, way too big (sounds pretty American to me, TBH), rendering it watery and flavorless. And it’s constantly being sneaked into recipes or becoming things it’s not: A cake, a bread, a pancake, a noodle. Maybe we’ve gone too far with our zoodlers, focusing on a scarcity of inspiration instead of the abundance of delicious opportunities. Because truly, how many ingredients can be scalloped, shaved, frittered, Hasselbacked, grilled, smashed, stuffed, marinated, and pickled?

Poring over hundreds of zucchini recipes, it’s easy to see where the fatigue sets in. The recipes I spotted were overwhelmingly similar, often cloaked with cheese and bacon that overpower the crisp vibrance of zucchini. “The problem with zucchini, then, is not its high yield,” Julie Falsetti writes in the York Dispatch. “But rather a dearth of recipes in the American pantheon.”

Perhaps it’s time we rise above the zucchini noise, and enjoy the bounty while our neighbors can still spare a zucchini — or four. A hot skillet or grill has never led me astray, nor has a sprig of basil, a slash of tahini, or a squeeze of a grilled lemon. Each summer, without fail, I find myself impatiently picking up a slice of smoky zucchini, too hot in my hands, before dropping it in my mouth like a greedy pelican. I have no plans of changing this, my poor fingers be damned. If you need me, you can find me hovering over whoever is on zucchini-grilling duty, ready for seconds.

What are you doing with all your zucchini? Tell us about it in the comments.