This time of the year, home cooks are sweating over the stove to keep up with all of the giant zukes and summer squash popping out of their gardens with alarming frequency. Zucchini pancakes, zucchini gratin and stuffed zucchini boats are a few of the tastiest ways to turn those bigger-than-life vegetables into palatable meals.
But those with more visual talent, especially for late model vehicles, are already in high drive designing some souped-up hoopties to enter into the annual zucchini races hosted each August by the Valley of the Moon, Healdsburg and Windsor farmers markets. The zucchini races in Sonoma were held earlier this week, but the Healdsburg flag will fall on Aug. 19 and the Windsor banner will unfurl on Aug. 27.
The “courgette-to-Corvette” classics, held on wooden tracks similar to the beloved pinewood derby tracks, are really just a thinly disguised ruse to lure more people to the farmers markets and to help out the farmers, who are in a race themselves to keep up with the height of harvest.
“The Zucchini Festival is zany and fun, but its real purpose is to bring people to the farmers market,” said Mary Kelley, who served as manager of the Healdsburg Certified Farmers Market from 2004 to 2014. “And the market is at its peak then.”
But that doesn’t mean kids — and kids at heart — don’t have a blast with it. Some are champing at the bit to enter their speedy zucchinis — gussied up with edible passengers, aerodynamic wings and colorful flowers — so their friends and neighbors can cheer them on.
Don Gruggett of Windsor, who used to work as a car dealership mechanic, has been designing zucchini cars with his grandson, Xander Grugget, 10, for the past five or six years. The race car team has even grown their own zucchinis for the Windsor zuke race, which Xander won three years in a row.
We asked Gruggett to share some of his insider secrets on winning the highly competitive races, where nearly everyone gets to take home a prize. Apparently, for once in the zucchini’s long and storied history, size does matter.
“We grow big zucchinis,” Gruggett confided. “The rails are 11 inches wide, and the zucchini has to fit within the lane. The bigger the zucchini, the faster it goes down.”
Although some folks make wheels out of hard vegetables like carrots, Gruggett prefers to use the sturdy, plastic wheels from old Tonka trucks, because they have a metal axle that can slide neatly through the zucchini chassis. Getting those wheels to spin in a smooth and efficient fashion is one of the veggie engineer’s biggest challenges.
Speed is not the only object, however, since most contests also give a prize for the most creatively decorated cars.
At the Healdsburg Zucchini Festival, Kelley recalls that one of her favorite zucchini cars, dubbed “Miss Blossom,” was designed by Barbara Stewart, who has helped out with the races for many years.
“It was designed to look like the inside of an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse,” she said. “And the teacher was represented by an upside-down zucchini blossom.”
Renee Kiff of Healdsburg, former market manager and longtime vegetable, fruit and flower grower in Alexander Valley, recalled that the zucchini festival first started in Healdsburg around 1980, a few years after the market was launched in 1978 as one of the 22 original farmers markets in California.
Sonoma Valley Certified Farmers’ Market Manager Hilda Swartz came up with the idea after watching a thrilling zucchini car race in Iowa.
“She thought it would be wonderful for Sonoma County, and she got a hold of a track just like the one in Iowa,” Kiff said. “We used to drive to Sonoma to pick up the track that she shared willingly.”
Sometime during the 1980s, however, Healdsburg woodworker Jerry Stewart was recruited to build a duplicate of the racetrack in his workshop, eliminating the need to borrow the four-lane track.
“It’s about 6-feet tall on one end, with a starting block at the top,” Kiff said. “It comes in three sections.”
By 2001, the idea of a zucchini race also gained traction at the Windsor Certified Farmers Market, which awards prizes every year for the biggest zucchini, fastest zuke cars and best “Veggie Art,” a non-kinetic category that eliminates the pesky problem of putting a veggie on wheels.
“For the first year, we borrowed Healdsburg’s track,” said Tina Castelli, manager of the Windsor Certfied Farmers Market. “Windsor developer Orrin Theissen built us a track in 2002.”
The Healdsburg Certified Farmers Market also holds a Giant Zucchini contest, with a weigh-in for the oversized zukes first thing in the morning, and a judging of the Most Creatively Decorated Cars. The zuke car races follow, with separate heats for different age categories.
If you’re looking for a few hefty zucchinis to decorate, market manager Janet Ciel suggested heading to the Healdsburg farmers’ market on the Wednesday night before the race. You can always eat your experiments that don’t work out. Just make sure that veggie vehicle is oiled — not spoiled — by the time Saturday morning rolls around.
“The zucchinis have to come with the wheels on — they need to be ready to roll,” Ciel said. “And you can’t put the zucchini on a roller skate — it has to move of its own accord.”
Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or email@example.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.
Healdsburg Certified Farmers’ Market Zucchini Festival: 8:30 a.m. to noon Aug. 19 in the West Plaza Lot, at North and Vine streets behind Bear Republic. Giant Zucchini Contest, Most Creatively Decorated Zucchini, Zucchini Car Races and live music by Dave Hamilton, a folk-Americana singer. healdsburgfarmersmarket.org.
Windsor Certified Farmers’ Market 17th annual Zucchini Festival: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Windsor Town Green. Festivities include Veggie Art contest, Zuke Car Races, Big Zucchini Contest and games. Live music by New Skye Band. windsorfarmersmarket.com.