The aroma of butternut squash soup and the chatter of produce enthusiasts filled Wooster Square this weekend as Elm City residents gathered for Squash Everything, a festival celebrating locally grown squash varieties and recipes.
The fourth annual festival was organized by City Seed, a New Haven non-profit that hosts farmer’s markets throughout the city each week and occasionally holds special events such as this past weekend’s squash-a-palooza. The market aims to promote the work of local farmers and the importance of Connecticut-grown produce. This past weekend, it added another highlight: seasonal squash varieties and recipes for the winter months.
“Squash was an expected but also under-appreciated choice for our winter-themed festival,” said Nicole Berube, executive director of City Seed, as she handed a customer a sample of her butternut squash orecchiette pasta.
Squash Everything is City Seed’s fourth special season festival this year, following the Salad Slam in May, Strawberry Fest in June and last month’s Apple Fest. This past Saturday, vendors such as The Soup Girl and The Farm Belly attended the market to share their own squash recipes, ranging from soup to squash-stuffed French toast.
Berube said that she aims to highlight seasonal products and the myriad creative culinary ways they can be used at each festival. The market’s farmers were also encouraged to include squash among their more regular produce this weekend.
Jaci Hall, a regular vendor who grows an array of vegetables ranging from parsnips to asparagus, said her favorite squash was the delicata squash. Hall works on her family farm in Simsbury, the George Hall Farm, and emphasized the importance of locally grown produce.
“The biggest issue is transportation,” she said. “I grew up with farm-to-table food, and you can clearly taste the difference between something that’s shipped from a few miles away versus from across the country.”
Hall said she routinely visits an average of 22 different markets around Connecticut every season, and during the busy summer months visits two markets a day.
But while Hall enjoys her work immensely, local organic farming brings its own challenges, she said. Hall tries to keep prices low in order to make her produce accessible to as many people as possible, but she said that organic farming requires a significant labor expense.
“We don’t use pesticides or weed-killers,” she said. “We have to go out into the fields and pull the weeds by hand. That’s why organic produce is so expensive.”
Despite such hardships, Hall said markets like the one City Seed hosts make all the effort worth it. For Hall, interacting with the eclectic group of people that farmer’s markets bring together and hearing her customers tell her how much they appreciate her produce keeps her coming back each weekend and each year. Hall has been selling at the City Seed market for seven years.
Pedro Aviles, a farmer on Rose’s Berry Farm in South Glastonbury, said his favorite squash was the blue hubbard squash, which he enjoys for its particular sweetness. Aviles, who has been a vendor at the market for years, noted that the season festivals were promoted more heavily this year in comparison to previous years.
Beyond its focus on food, City Seed’s mission also focuses on promoting healthy diets and agricultural knowledge. At the entrance to the market stood a table displaying several winter squash varieties accompanied by pamphlets describing how best to grow and cook each type. Next to it was a small activity table for children to make squash-themed art.
“The market is an equalizer,” Berube said. “Customers who live on opposite sides of town will have the same questions about the produce, and this is a space where they can engage with and learn from each other.”
City Seed is making active efforts to bring as diverse a group of people to Wooster each weekend, especially those from low-income families. In 2005, the organization was one of the first farmer’s markets in Connecticut to start accepting food stamps from those enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Customers can exchange a SNAP benefit for a coin of twice its value for use at the market. The coins do not expire, and Berube notes that many customers even buy coins as gifts for friends.
“We need to both accept and battle produce prices,” Berube said. “But we’re always tweaking things and making things better.”
Other vendors at the festival included the Yale Farm, Beltane Farm and Small Kitchen Big Taste.