This week’s recipe: Miso Kabocha Squash Soup with Maple Roasted Walnuts
This past Tuesday I saw the Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen. My sister saw it in December, while it was still in previews, and advised the rest of us to get tickets immediately. I’m glad we did because it’s become a huge hit and it’s probably a lot harder to get tickets these days. I can see why. Its themes—loneliness, feelings of invisibility, the desire to be cared for—resonate with everyone in the audience. I’ve never heard so much crying in a Broadway theater as during certain numbers of Dear Evan Hansen. The music is tuneful pop-rock, and even though almost every song has an exceedingly generic-sounding title, the songs are lovely and very well-integrated into the script. The cast is uniformly excellent, but Ben Platt, who plays the title character, is unbelievable. He embodies Evan’s nervous, needy loneliness through a series of tics and twitches, hunched shoulders, and words that spill out of his mouth with a fantastic velocity. And of course he sings beautifully, even through some heavy tears.
But what I liked most about Dear Evan Hansen is its emotional honesty. A quick explanation of the plot (spoilers ahead): Evan is a nerdy outcast, in a cast (see what I did there?), which he got after falling out of a tree and breaking his arm. His therapist has advised him to write pep talks in the form of letters to himself—hence the title of the show. He is printing one of these letters, about his feelings of invisibility and his crush on a classmate named Zoe, when it’s found in the computer lab printer by a violent loner bully named Connor who happens to be Zoe’s brother. Connor steals the letter and, shortly thereafter, commits suicide with the letter still in his pocket. Connor’s parents, finding the letter addressed to Evan and signed “Sincerely, Me,” assume that Connor wrote it to Evan. They reach out to Evan, and although he intends to tell them the truth, he finds that he can’t bear to deprive them of what they think is their last piece of connection to their son. Instead, he builds an elaborate fantasy where he and Connor were secretly best friends. Things spin further out of control when he gives an inspirational speech about the meaning of Connor’s life and death at a school assembly and the video goes viral. He becomes the face of a national movement called the Connor Project, wins Zoe’s love, and integrates himself into her well-off, two-parent household—much to the distress of his divorced mom, who is loving and supportive but who works all the time and can’t afford to send Evan to college. He gains confidence and popularity, but is always aware that any good things coming his way are because of a lie. Throughout, he is haunted by Connor’s ghost, who forces Evan to confront the fact that he fell out of the tree on purpose in a halfhearted suicide attempt. Ultimately, he is moved to confess to Connor’s family when the social media mob turns on them—and to his mother when she figures out what he’s been hiding—but although the gaps in his story are becoming increasingly clear, no one else ever finds out the truth. The play ends a year later, with the hysteria of the Connor Project in the past. Evan meets up with Zoe, who forgives him for what he did and admits that even though they all know the story of Evan and Connor’s friendship is a lie, that lie saved her family.
So the play deals in some difficult themes (though it’s actually very funny in parts). Being an adolescent is really hard, and although there’s been a lot of focus in recent years on the various societal pressures and psychological torments that teenage girls face, I imagine that certain aspects of adolescence might be even harder for boys, because the socially acceptable range of emotion and expression is so limited for them. No one really knows what to make of Evan or Connor, two different species of loner. Evan is exceedingly sensitive and feels every emotion intensely, traits which are not exactly encouraged in teenage boys. We don’t get to know Connor much, other than the version of him that exists in Evan’s head, and so instead we build our picture of him from how his family reacts to his death. His mother, a dilettantish stay-at-home-mom, is devastated. His father, a distant, traditional type, is stoical but inwardly furious. Zoe, who got the brunt of Connor’s antisocial behavior, resists any attempts to turn her tormentor into a misunderstood martyr, and at first she is skeptical of Evan’s picture of Connor as a troubled soul who wanted to change. But her skepticism melts away relatively quickly, indicating that she, like her parents, wants to believe that there was a side of Connor that they never saw.
It made me think a lot about what it must be like to be the parent or sibling of an objectively “bad” kid. It seems terrible to label anyone, especially a kid, as objectively bad, but the truth is that there are born psychopaths in the world. The audience doesn’t get to know Connor well enough to know if he’s a psychopath, though a brief moment of empathy between him and Evan seems to indicate that he’s not. Still, it’s clear that throughout his life, he’s caused his family and his schoolmates nothing but trouble. Part of the reason his parents cling so desperately to Evan’s stories is because they’ve never known Connor to have a friend. The only positive memories that his family has of him are the ones that Evan manufactures for them.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t love him. I remember reading a comment from the mother of one of the Columbine shooters, Sue Kleebold. While every other Columbine parent was praying for their child to be alive, she said, she was praying for hers to be dead. Sue loved her son intensely, and continues to love him even now, but you can love somebody and still recognize the pain they cause. I can’t imagine the mix of grief, relief, and guilt that Connor’s family would feel, but it all felt very real and honest to me.
So anyway, here’s some soup. I made this delightful miso kabocha squash soup on Thursday night, after the big snowstorm, and it was the perfect antidote for a cold night. As with all squash recipes, you must factor in the time it takes to actually peel the damn thing (25 minutes in my case)! I also learned a cool trick, which is putting the squash in the microwave for four minutes—it makes it a lot easier to cut. But once that’s dealt with, the soup comes together easily and beautifully. Eat it with your loved one while watching the Netflix Michael Bolton Valentine’s Day Special.
Kabocha Squash Miso Soup with Maple Roasted Walnuts
From Connoisseurus Veg
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 6 cups diced (1/2 inch) kabocha squash (about 1 medium, 3 pound squash, you could substitute butternut or acorn squash)
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
- 3 cups water
- 2 to 4 tablespoons white miso paste
- 1 cup shelled walnut halves
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- dash cayenne pepper
- Coat the bottom of a large pot with oil and place over medium heat. Add onion and squash. Cook until onion is soft and translucent, and squash just begins to soften, about 10 minutes, flipping occasionally. Add garlic and ginger, and cook for about 1 minute more, until very fragrant. Add water, raise heat to high and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until squash is tender, about 10 minutes.
- Working in batches, transfer the soup to a blender and blend until completely smooth. Return the soup to the pot, place over medium heat, and warm it back up to the desired temperature. Dissolve 2 tablespoons of miso in a small amount of hot water, then add it to the soup and stir. Taste test, and if desired, dissolve some more miso in hot water and add it to the soup. Keep going until you reach a balnce of sweet/savory/salty that you’re happy with.
- While the soup cooks, preheat the oven to 375°. Place the walnuts, maple syrup and cayenne pepper into a bowl and toss to coat. Arrange in an even layer on a baking sheet with a rim or lip and sprinkle with salt. Bake until nuts are browned and the liquid has cooked off, about 10 to 13 minutes, watching them closely to avoid burning.
- Ladle soup into bowls and top with walnuts. Serve.