The old Vermont farm house at the foot of the Northfield Gulf overlooking a murmuring trout stream known as Ayer’s Brook was a busy place in October and November. Wagonloads of cut and split maple firewood tumbled into the waiting woodshed where canoe-shaped halves of freshly-killed hogs hung in the frosty air ready to be cut and wrapped. Wheel barrow loads of Green Mountain potatoes, Northern Spy apples and Danish Ball-head cabbages were wheeled into the underground root cellar, while bacon slabs and hams slow-smoked over corn cob-and-apple-wood-fired outdoor pits. Last of all came the cargo of winter squash from the curing ground of old hay next to the worn-out garden; giant blue hubbards with their armor plated warts, along with buttercups, acorns baby pie pumpkins and assorted cousins, on their way to an unheated but dry upstairs attic room to provide appreciated main meals, soups and desserts for the long months of winter ahead. An old New England tradition? A-yuh. But a whole lot more.
A member of the botanical family cucurbita maxima – except for pumpkins, which are in the sub-order c. pepo – the winter squash is one of the oldest food cultivars (actually a fruit) native to the American continent. In one form or another, they were being grown in Central and South America as early as 8000 years ago, and their cultivation has been traced back at least 2700 years among native tribes of the northeastern United States where they were known by the name askutasquash (literally “food which can be eaten raw or cooked”) in both Narragansett and Algonquian languages.
High in Vitamins A and C, and good quality fiber, it is one of a small handful of very nutritious native foods which can be grown, preserved and easily transported through all the seasons of a year. In early cultures it was one of the sacred triad known as “the three sisters”, both because of its natural complimentarity to maize corn and beans, and because the three have a symbiotic relationship in cultivation: The corn stalk provides a pole for the beans to climb, and protection from the sun for the squash, while the beans fix nitrogen in the soil without which the corn would deplete the ground they all depend on. The large squash leaves act as weed-control and cool the ground surface on hot days.
Squash was prized for the long-keeping quality of its food power, for the high nutrition hidden in its dried seeds, and for the added attraction of its large edible blossoms. What’s more its flesh could be dried for use as a light-weight and portable travel food. Native American farmers practiced “rotation culture”, growing each crop on ground not planted to the same cultivar the previous year, thus enhancing soil fertility and discouraging predator insects.
Winter squash are high on our list of storage foods, with Buttercup types a favorite for their sweet, deep orange flesh for baking, Sweet Meat, larger and a great combination of keeping and eating qualities, Butternut, the best squash for soup-making, and Acorn, wonderful for stuffing. If our family was larger, we would certainly go for Hubbard types, the best of all “keepers”. Another good choice for size is the Banana squash, often sold in pre-cut pieces in the markets. We look for fruit which has field-cured with a hard outer skin, is blemish-free and with the stem intact. They will keep best in a cool (50-60 degree), dry, dark location, with spaces between them. We eat the buttercups first, monitoring their quality weekly.
All told, winter squash has to rate as one of the real WONDER FOODS given to the world by America.
Caption for title photo:
A dazzling variety of long-keeping and tradition-filled winter squash tantalize visitors to a Utah farmers’ market, the genetic offspring of a fruit which has been with us for more than 8000 years.
Al Cooper Photo
Al can frequently be heard talking about food history on his weekly radio show, at 4:00 PM Mondays on KSUB 590