A Grand Disguise

zucchini ribbons with lemon, butter, and basil


I’ve been riding the commuter rail to work for almost a year and a half. When I talk about it, I know I’m complaining. I hate to whine, I’m afraid to whine. In a nutshell, I wake up earlier than most and make it via commuter rail and subway to work in a very roundabout way. What gets lost is the bright side of my morning commute. It’s easier to be negative. But everyday on that train is an intimate lesson in sociology that I appreciate. I’ve memorized the faces, the expressions, the voices of those I see everyday from stop, to ride, to dash. We ride together. We speak, we don’t speak. It’s a grand disguise; in that 1 ½ hour leg of our daily journey, we are nameless, jobless, lifeless, hobby-less. No one wants to be defined here. Instead, we have a special connection that eschews who we really are. We are only commuters. Age, sex, race, orientation melt away. We’re stripped bare. We are only our first impressions. And there’s something very special about that.


My favorite grouping to watch is the poker crew that plays together every morning. These men would not likely be connected outside of that vessel: One’s nearing retirement. Silver-haired, casual, big Bruins fan. I often wonder when his satchel, most likely the one he’s carried for most of his career, is going to bust, sending his crinkled, tea-stained papers through the car — its seams are so very stretched and loose from wear. One’s probably 35, curly-haired with a chiseled face, very earthy-crunchy. You have the fresh-faced 22-year-old who recently joined the crew in his blue tie, always a blue tie. One’s 40, dirty-nailed and greasy, the skinniest of the group. And then there’s Mr. Worcester, 55, with his wrinkled suit, wagging mouth and thick, snarly accent (I’m allowed to say these things. I once lived in the hood.) He’s one of those guys who finds it necessary to stretch his legs out, violently crushing whoever sits next to him. (I know from experience.)

They don’t all mount at the same stop; the group grows as we move along. Although not involved, I so enjoy their game playing. It’s refreshing. And if they don’t snag the coveted table seats, their game stops, they sleep, they don’t talk. And that’s it. They don’t walk out together. They don’t exchange numbers or meet for lunch. They go on their way. They exit the train and become their true selves – or at least what they normally project themselves as. Who knows which is true. Like the rest of us, they strip themselves of that equalizing disguise. They are now the sage elder, the health advisor, the State Street intern, the sanitation worker, and the programmer. And somehow that defines them on stationary ground and puts them in a box in which they’re left to interact with their kind.

If a newbie insults a crew member, we come together, we cuss that oaf out. We make room for more to sit. We work on computers and complain about the WiFi. We thumb through our phones. We snarl when we’re stuck sitting in front of the “bathroom” and someone actually has the nerve to use it, making the car feel awfully uncomfortable. It’s a bond that might be stronger than any other one I have, and sometimes we don’t even know every name. When I forget my ticket I don’t even need to utter from where I’m coming and to where I’m going; my ticket taker knows and doesn’t even count my bills. It’s a simple pleasure.

This past Friday I took the 4:05 home. I have half days on summer Fridays, and I left the office around 3. It’s not my normal train, the 7:18, which gets me home at 8:35. But I knew many of these folks from the morning train. Everyone looks drawn on Fridays. But as they sleep or rest, they still flash a subtle smile. They have plans. They have two days without trains and Ts. Except I was sandwiched between grumpy and smelly – a far cry from the overwhelming, flustering attractiveness between which I was sandwiched the Friday before. Leaving South Station late, we sailed easily through Wellesley when suddenly our pace hastened. It’s normal. But then the lights went out, along with the air condition. That same air condition that I curse everyday for its chill. Smelly’s breath and Grumpy’s unintelligible mutterings were the only ventilation we had, as doors could not be opened.

And we swore. We vilified he MBTA that so often lets us down. “This shit’s gotta stop,” we agreed. We heard 30-minute delay, which, in Commuter Rail speak means an hour or more. And in that 30 minutes, which became 3 hours of complaining and grumbling, we were more one than we had ever been. Two comrades jumped ship, taking their lives in their hands as they crossed the tracks to mount the hill and get to Rt. 137 without fear of being struck by a freight train as they crossed the opposite track. We glorified their prohibitory departures, proud of their bravery, jealous of their release. As we called our friends and families, we filled in each other’s words and stories, helping each other tell the details of the ordeal more accurately. And when we finally reached the station where we would hop one of the later trains on the opposite track to get to our final destinations, we passed through weeds and damp mud together, as if we were vultures standing in a line at Disney World. Middle fingers flew through the air when we noticed that spectators and families crossing a nearby walking bridge were pointing at our trudging mass and shooting us with their camera phones, as if we were animals. Eventually I came home, famished and gleaming with perspiration, I didn’t even stop to think about the air I was now able to breathe in. Because when I took in that air in the dank, closed train, I was taking in the same air as the others.

One of my main reasons for complaining during this whole experience though, was just so silly. I had zucchini waiting for me at home. It was farm fresh and needed to be eaten soon. I was going to make this recipe, a simple little diddy I have been happily whipping up almost every other day the past few weeks. Zucchini is probably my favorite summer vegetable. It has flaws: It’s water-y; it’s only flavorful when super-fresh and is one veg that you just can’t get by buying from the supermarket; you usually need to overcook it in order to get some color or char on it — or else your stuck with an unappealing, slimy mass of squash. Well, zucchini can wear a disguise, too. Sure, these things are true, but this dish hides them, at least for the 4 seconds it takes me to scarf it down. And it’s so fast and easy. Recipe = make zucchini ribbons (the most tedious part), flash them in a pan of butter, toss with stuff, serve. The zucchini — which is reminiscent of pasta — is cooked (I’m not as much a fan of raw), but still crunchy. Bathing in butter, basil, and lemon, there’s no way it could be flavorless. And its watery secret actually helps it here. The “zucchini water” that is exuded in the pan, helps the butter coat the strands and make a sauce, kind of like starchy pasta water aids in making a “real” pasta dish. It’s summer in a bowl.

Yes, it is a grand disguise.

Zucchini Ribbons with Lemon, Butter, and Basil
Serves 2 as an appetizer, serves 4 as a small side

3 tbsp (42 grams) unsalted butter
1 3/4 pounds of zucchini (about 4 medium-large or 6 small), peeled.
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
3/4 tsp lemon zest
2 tablespoons lemon juice (or less to taste)
1/4 + 2 tbsp basil chiffonade (about 7 large leaves) plus extra for garnish
1/4 cup pine nuts
Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings, for serving

Place pine nuts in a 12-inch skillet and toast over medium heat, shaking the pan often to brown them evenly. Once adequately toasted, transfer to a small bowl. Set aside.

Grasping the zucchini stems with a paper towel and resting the base on a clean kitchen towel, use a vegetable peeler to press down and make strips (about the width of pappardelle). Repeat this motion, rotating the zucchini after each peel (see below photo). Stop once you reach the core of seeds. Set aside ribbons.

In the now-empty skillet, melt butter until foaming. Add zucchini, salt and pepper, and lemon zest, and cook, tossing and coating in the butter until cooked but very crisp, about 2 minutes. Add lemon juice and basil, toss to distribute, and serve, pouring as much broth as desired in the dish. This is the “sauce.” Top with toasted pine nuts, reserved basil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

9 responses

  1. I’m completely obsessed with raw courgette salads at the moment – I make them with raw garlic sliced thinly which my boyfriend and I both love, but possibly should only eat when we know we’re not going to have company!

    I love the addition of butter here, and cooking them to make the salad slightly softer. Thanks also for the peeling tip – will definitely peel my courgettes like this from now on!

  2. I rode the commuter rail for the majority of the summer before my senior year of college. I won’t lie, I really liked it. I love trains (not subways). They can be a pain, and a time suck, but there’s a lot of charm to them too

  3. There really are a lot of pluses and minuses, and there’s definitely much to be learned from public commuting. What I really want to say, though, is how simple yet amazing this zucchini dish looks.

  4. There is something so elegant about zucchini ribbons, and I can imagine myself housing an entire bowl of this (not so elegant of me huh?). Also, thanks for sharing the commuter rail story. I only take the bus everyday (and only for a few minutes) but I can relate to the same nameless bond :)

  5. I really enjoyed your commuter rail tales. Makes me thankful I can walk to work.
    This dish is really good looking and maybe a good way for me to use up all that zucchini I have!

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