Chayote, Joy of Man's Desiring

Crazed chayote seedling

I learned to use a chayote in cooking from Diana Kennedy’s The Art of Mexican Cooking. It shows up in various moles as a cooked starchy vegetable. When we moved to the Bay Area I heard about people growing them in gardens. I have a wonderful book, Golden Gate Gardening, that describes plants and culture especially for the San Francisco Bay Area, and the author, Pam Peirce, describes in detail how to grow your own chayote. It seemed hard to believe: she says you get a good fruit, and simply place it in a warm, indirectly-lit room over the winter. Gradually the plant sends out a shoot, and after that some roots start to develop. This is all happening in the air; in our case, on top of a filing cabinet in the office.

In the process of writing the Hen Waller Timeline, I realized I wanted to find a link to a good online reference for the Chayote. I did find a good informative link on the wikipedia, but it, like all the other references I found, neglected to describe how utterly amazing it is to grow the plant. It looks kind of like a little fruit monster.

I procured a locally grown fruit in November 2002 from a large vine that was hanging over into a friend’s yard. I then followed the directions in Golden Gate Gardening. Sure enough, a shoot grew out, and then some scraggly roots, and the seed inside began to swell and emerge. I planted the fruit into the garden in March of 2004, and as I noted, it grew about 30 feet up our back stairway in one season. Apparently the plant will bear more fruit in the second season, and while it is self-pollinating (that is, it does not need other like plants to cross-pollinate with in order to bear fruit), the plants will bear more fruit if there is another (its ?¢‚Ǩ?ìnovia?¢‚Ǩ?) nearby. So we saved a fruit from last year’s vine to grow and plant this year.

This year’s seedling is especially vigorous, and I have cut it back twice. (Peirce advises cutting back the shoot if it gets to be 12 inches high.) Now it is growing an even thicker, more vigorous shoot.

The shoots, by the way, are delicious — each time I’ve trimmed it, I ate the shoot out of hand. It tasted a lot like a sweet-pea tendril, sweet and vegetal, and tender at the tip but becoming fibrous as it thickened near the base.

We planted the new one in the garden yesterday, and we’ll train it to come up the back stairs and join the other plant. Maybe this year they’ll make it all the way into the kitchen.

The photograph at top is of the seedling growing in our office, about a week before planting it in the garden. it’s amazing, really — the fruit itself is the viable seed pod, and it’s ready to grow as soon as it comes off the vine.

According to the literature, the fruits do not keep well, and are difficult to preserve, but they are easy to propagate. I imagine it was quite a popular and revered crop in the time before refrigeration . . . one of those crops that bears abundantly for a short time, and suddenly it’s chayote this and chayote that, in a race to eat them all up before they become overripe (or start growing!). No wonder there are so many recipes. This year we enjoyed them stuffed (like a twice-baked potato) and raw, in a cool mustard-mayonnaise-dressed salad that was just like cole slaw but with crispy raw chayote instead of cabbage.

If we get a big crop this year, we will slice/blanch/freeze a quantity for future cooking, and pass the rest along to our local backyard-produce redistribution network, The Big Backyard.

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One Response to Chayote, Joy of Man's Desiring

  1. santos says:

    hi patrick! in the philippines, chayote is as ubiquitous as the potato, so it’s often overlooked, or rather, undervalued. however, in lean times or during disasters, chayote is the vegetable most people and aid agencies will turn to for its ease of growth and shipping, nutritional value and versatility. we don’t use chayote much here, mainly because we’ve got an abundance of other gourds; however, i haven’t tried growing chayote myself, but the idea of having little fruit monsters abound is rather attractive!

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