Growing 'spaghetti' among the squashes

In the early 1930s a Japanese seedsman, Takeo Sakata, came across a vegetable that was a popular staple in the Chinese province of Manchuria. Mr. Sakata was so intrigued by it, and so enjoyed what his cook could do with it, that he decided to make it available to the world.

Unfortunately, the world wasn't all that appreciative. At the time it thought no more of the seedsman's initiative than it did of Manchurian cuisine in general. Thus a puzzled Mr. Sakata withdrew the offering from his catalog until the mid-1960s.

Then he tried again, this time promoting the vegetable as a substitute for spaghetti.

''Enjoy spaghetti without the starch,'' was the thrust of his message. A Western world, increasingly interested in low-calorie food, accepted the reintroduction with enthusiasm.

Its ready acceptance in Europe caused US seedsmen to take notice, so that now spaghetti squash is a standard offering in most seed catalogs on this side of the Atlantic as well. It is even sold at the supermarket produce counter - the true test of a vegetable's popularity.

Vegetable spaghetti gets its name from the way the interior flesh unravels like strands of spaghetti when cooked. Though cooked and eaten as you would winter squash, spaghetti squash is more closely related to summer squash and is equally prolific. One plant will readily yield six fruit, each weighing about five pounds. That's 30 pounds of fruit worth some $15 at current supermarket prices.

Garden writer-photographer Derek Fell was one of those who pushed for the introduction of spaghetti squash into the United States a decade ago.

In 1974, as director of All America Selections at the time, he was a guest of Mr. Sakata in Tokyo. There he tasted vegetable squash for the first time. The whole meal, in fact, was built around vegetables then uncommon in the US. But according to Mr. Fell, ''the dinner conversation centered around the spaghetti squash and the struggle Mr. Sakata had had in introducing it to the West.''

Since that evening overlooking Tokyo Bay, Fell has been an unabashed promotor of this form of ''pasta'' and has often turned his own Pennsylvania garden into a ''spaghetti factory.''

''You can, too,'' he tells anyone that listens.

Last year Fell co-authored a book on this particular vegetable with Phyllis Shaudys, a homemaker, herbalist, lecturer, and author.

The Vegetable Spaghetti Cookbook ($4.95 from Pine Row Publications, PO Box 428, Washington Crossing, Pa. 18977) is one of the few garden books that deals exclusively, not just with one vegetable, but with one variety of vegetable. While Fell deals with the history and growing techniques of the squash, Shaudys draws on her six years of cooking the spaghetti squash her own garden produces in abundance.

''The real beauty of vegetable spaghetti is that it does not taste like every other squash,'' Shaudys says.

''It is subtle enough to taste like whatever you want it to taste like, depending upon what you put with it. This aspect allows you to combine it with any of your favorite foods as the substitute starch base of a meal.'' The recipes, mostly of her own creating, include breads, soups, salads, main courses , and sauces.

Spaghetti squash stores well for about two months in a moderately cool, dark cellar, but the real plus is that it freezes extraordinarily well. If you have a freezer, ''you won't have to give away excess squash any more,'' Shaudys says.

Even a small garden can easily grow a yearly supply of spaghetti for a family , Fell adds.

Spaghetti squash trails naturally over the ground, but Fell suggests letting it climb up a fence, trellis, or tomato cage to save space. The vine has particularly strong tendrils and has no trouble supporting the mature fruit.

''In other words, it's a great climber,'' according to Fell, who adds that its many large yellow flowers give it ornamental value as well.

The squash family is native to Central and South America, yet no wild relative remotely resembling spaghetti squash can now be found anywhere in the region. How the squash developed its spaghettilike appearance, and how it got from South America to China in the first place, is another of horticulture's unanswered mysteries.

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