The room was silent. Delegates had voted and were waiting for the result of the first podium finish – third – to appear on a large screen fixed to the wall. The barman moved around softly, collecting glasses.
The room was a private one at a rundown hotel in an inner bayside suburb; the kind of place once frequented by car dealers, waterside workers, blacksmiths and horse trainers. To say the clientele had changed would be like saying the sun had risen. Today, the faded curtains, the worn carpet, and the accidentally-antique bar furniture gave the establishment a raffish air that appealed to the inner-urban hipsters who had transformed the surrounding suburb from $10,000 workers' cottages into $1.5 million 'unpolished gems' by the simple act of moving in. Now, the hipsters were happy to mix with the remaining scoundrels of the area and the hotel was the place they did it.
Suddenly, a headline appeared on the screen.
The Top Ten Vegetables.
Silence. A subtitle appeared.
No 3: Pumpkin.
Borg broke the hush. 'Pumpkin?' he exclaimed, with a high, searching, inflection. 'Pumpkin? Third? That's ridiculous!'
Radnitz spoke. 'Yes, I admit, unexpected,' he said, looking at Borg. 'But we must not let professional jealousy cloud our judgement.'
'Professional jealousy?' replied Borg, with the same upward inflection. 'Ridiculous.'
'I can see it's going to be one of those evenings when everything is ridiculous,' said Radnitz, slowly and with only a hint of sarcasm. 'But you are, after all, a niche player. You do not like mainstream.'
Borg was a grower of organic chokoes for the hospitality industry. Very niche, but then again they were very good chokoes. Or so I had heard. I hadn't personally tried an organic choko grown for the hospitality industry. In fact, I hadn't personally tried an organic choko period.
Schwartz put down his double Scotch and entered the conversation. 'In some countries,’ he averred, 'pumpkin is mere pig food.' With that he drained his glass and walked immediately, as if by remote control, to the bar.
Chad Winters was impassive. He sat in a retro green brocade winged armchair, obtained by the hotelier at Fowles Auctions for a mere $100. Winters raised a lazy arm, the one whose hand was not around a highball glass. Heads turned.
'Radnitz is right,' he said. 'We should respect the voting process. A poll is not a fashion statement, nor a social media affectation, nor a twitter ejaculation. Nor is it peer self-congratulation.'
He paused and sipped his highball. 'As for your comment, Schwartz,' (Schwartz was back, glass in hand) 'that pig-feeding practice merely reflects one element of what is good about the orange gourd: its sheer abundance. They feed it to the pigs because it otherwise rots on the vine. You might remember my telling the story about my own bountiful harvest a few years back. After throwing down a few seeds at the start of summer, my garden became a sea of endless trailing vines supporting some ninety five-kilogram pumpkins by season's end. I decided never to grow pumpkins again, simply because there were always more than I could use, and it seemed a waste, even though they store for months.'
'Abundance is nothing without utility,' said Borg. 'Or taste.'
'I like that coming from a choko grower,' laughed Radnitz.
'Blandness may apply to many vegetables,' went on Chad Winters, ignoring the interruption. 'Yet the mark of a good home cook is - like the alchemists of old - being able to turn something into something else. Something wonderful.'
'Right now, all over the world, housewives are turning pumpkins – the cheapest vegetable of all – into dishes they hope will hold sufficient interest for their husbands and children that they will go to bed both satisfied and nourished: the twin Holy Grails of the domestic culinary art. If anything can do that, pumpkin can. It can be used in casseroles, braises and stews; transformed into pies, both savoury and sweet; and baked into bread, scones and biscuits. Its flesh can fill pasta, can be cooked into risotto, or be sliced into lasagne. Its sweet caramelised flavour, when baked, is unsurpassed. Mash it alone or with potato or swede or carrot. Saute it until it starts to sear, chill it and turn it into salads worthy of a main meal with chickpeas and pine nuts, or avocado and walnuts, or green beans and cherry tomatoes. You name it. In some countries, longevity is measured in pepitas: the men chew roasted pumpkin seeds even while playing cards, smoking endless cigarettes and sipping ouzo. And - as I said - right this very minute, home cooks worldwide are preparing what is possibly the world's most ubiquitous soup, made perhaps with ginger and garlic and coriander and a touch of chilli, or a simpler version with stock and a swirl of cream.'
Borg rolled his eyes at the mention of 'ubiqitous'. Schwartz drained his glass. Radnitz stood up. The clock said five to ten.
'Last drinks, gentlemen,' called the barman, mopping the bar with a foot-long Carlton Draught bar towel.
Couscous with pumpkin, chick peas and chilli sauce.
Fry a finely-chopped onion in four tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy-based pan. Crush and add a small cinnamon stick. Fry.
Add a large cubed unpeeled eggplant, three medium carrots cut into rounds, and two quartered medium potatoes. Stir to cover in oil. Fry ten minutes, shaking the pan or stirring.
Now add 250g pumpkin cut into large cubes, followed by two large ripe quartered tomatoes, a drained can of chick peas, a quarter teaspoon mixed spice, three teaspoons (or more) of your favourite hot chilli sauce, and salt and pepper to taste.
Add two cups of water, cover the pan and simmer until vegetables are almost tender.
Add a dozen trimmed green beans cut into batons and two trimmed zucchini cut into rounds. Simmer another fifteen minutes.
Serve over couscous cooked according to pack directions.