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In New Orleans, for reasons lost in the Delta mists since Napoleon sold the place to Jefferson in 1803, they call this pale-green, delicate vegetable mirliton, standard French for a toy reed flute. Elsewhere in areas of former French domination, this cousin of gourds, melons, and squashes is a christophine. In Spanish-speaking areas, it takes its Mexican name, chayote, from the Nahuatl chayotl. My mother knew it as the vegetable pear. It appears sporadically in U.S. supermarkets, identifiable mainly because it doesn’t look like anything else you’ve seen, with its nobbled, ridged pale green skin. The flesh is paler still and, when cooked, has an evanescent mild squashy taste. In the center is a flat, white nutlike seed said to be edible.

Mother learned to cook vegetable pears from her Jamaican friend Cora Pratt. They met at an NAACP meeting that Mother attended not so much out of enthusiasm for the “Negro” cause, but because she was desperate for human company (my father had not yet returned from his stint as a Public Health Service syphilologist at Fort Bliss outside El Paso) and was seven months pregnant with my sister, bored and lonely. She had read about the meeting in the NAACP magazine Crisis (my parents got it as a benefit for their annual check to the NAACP) and decided to take a cab downtown to the Hannan YMCA, where it would be held.

This was, for someone who had been fearful about encountering anti-Semitism in officers’ clubs and had never in her life designed to be on an equal social footing with a black person, a rather bold plan.

The Checker cabdriver didn’t want to take her, but in the end he relented; she sat in the back of the meeting on a bench, feeling uncomfortable and awkward. Cora was sitting next to her in her khaki WAC’s uniform, including the hat. They fell to chatting about military life when the meeting broke up. Cora drove Mom home. The friendship lasted until Mom discovered Cora in her bed without the uniform. Daddy was taking a shower. From then on in our house, vegetable pear on the table was a tacit reproach. I found out about this from Inez the laundress, who came up from Black Bottom in Detroit’s ghetto to run sheets through the mangle in the basement.

Inez … well, that’s another story.

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