—by Jerry McClelland
Nothing says autumn to me like squash do. They come in bold shapes and sizes created by anarchist squash fairies. They have rinds of green, yellow, orange, blue, black, red, white, and hues in between. Some rinds are as smooth as silk, and others are pitted, ridged, or warty. Their seeds hang in their bellies on squash ropes. The wonderment of their exotic appearance is equaled by their natural history and propensity for breeding like, well, squash.
The wild progenitors of squash grew in South and Central America about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago and were extremely bitter, according to John Navazio, author of The Organic Seed Grower. But among the wild squash were the occasional non-bitter examples from which farmers selected seeds to plant the next year. Over time and in many places squash shifted, turned, morphed, and became the splendor of autumn tables.
Squash hitchhike on the food desires of humans, but vine squash travel under their own momentum too. Once the sprouts get a few leaves on them, they shoot off in all directions at a fairly rapid clip, maybe reaching 15 feet. Being open-pollinated makes them seem to have a promiscuous streak, breeding with themselves or with other squash, wild or domestic.
Left on their own, the large squash blossoms open early on summer mornings around the summer solstice, attracting
pollinating bees with generous amounts of nectar. As bees creep deep into the male blossoms to collect nectar, they get their feet sticky with pollen grains before buzzing off to the next blossom. When the bee happens onto a female blossom, they track in the pollen and leave it on the stigma like a child tracks mud through the back door.
After the bees (or other insects or the wind) have fertilized a blossom, we have the possibility for a baked squash for a blustery, cold October supper. We also have the possibility of lots of crosses, crossovers, and cross-backs, which adds to the mystique of what we eat. Frankly, it adds a bit of a muddlement about squash pedigrees, as well. Of course, seed growers have their ways of controlling pollination when they want to be sure about offspring.
Hampden Park Coop will be getting 17 kinds of winter squash starting in early fall and ending after the New Year. See sidebar for the long list of squash that will be available to us. Here is a sketchy pedigree of two familiar standards about which a fair amount is known— some of which is disputed.
It is generally agreed that the Hubbard squash was domesticated in South America and arrived at Marblehead, Massachusetts, by boat in the 1700s. It seems it had a green rind when it arrived, but the color was somewhat variable. A washer woman named Hubbard brought seeds from a dark green squash to a Mr. James Gregory’s attention, declaring the squash to be very tasty. Undoubtedly it had other names earlier, but Gregory gave Hubbard’s name to the squash when he started selling its seeds along with others in the 1850s.
During the 1800s a great deal of crossing the Hubbard with other Hubbards and with other squash created offspring of varying sizes and tastes and colors of green, blue, grey, red, gold, and orange. The Hubbards have thick, bumpy rinds and average 12 to 15 pounds. They have moderately sweet yellow flesh and have the shape of a football gone wrong at the ends. HPC will be getting a variety of colors, including some black and white ones, according to Rebecca Schwen of Heartbeet Farms, who sources some of squash for the co-op.
Northern Columbia may have been the center of origin for the ancestor of butternut squash. Canadian Crookneck squash have a whimsical, exaggerated neck like that of a swan, and they were crossed here and there to tame the neck to the consistent, shorter, thicker neck of the butternut squash we eat today. One of these was the New Hampshire Butternut.
By 1968 the pollen was just right at the Waltham Agricultural Extension Experiment Station in Massachusetts for one of the masterstrokes of squash breeding: the New Hampshire Butternut was crossed with a squash from Turkey to produce the Waltham Butternut, according to Amy Goldman.
Today the Waltham is the most widely grown butternut. It has a thin rind and is light tan-colored with a thick neck and small seed cavity. The fruit are about 9 inches long and average about 4 pounds. The flesh is smooth-textured and has a medium orange color.
The Hubbard seems as if it might have been through a lot of hard times, leaving it lumpy and bumpy, but its shape is relaxed; the
butternut has a buttoned- down exterior, but had a raucous time getting to its present state. It turns out it wasn’t squash fairies creating the profusion of squash. It is the legacy of millions of pollinated blossoms over thousands of years.
Winter Squash at the Co-op
Wisconsin Growers near Mondovi and Black River Falls, Wisconsin, Heartbeet Farm near Zumbro Falls, and Amish Families near St. Charles, Minnesota, are growing the fall and winter squash for HPC. Here is what will be on offer:
- Gold Acorn
- Honey Bear Acorn Striped Acorn
- Table Ace Acorn Buttercup
- Green Kabocha
- Red Kabocha
- Red Kuri
- Heart of Gold
- Waltham Butternut Carnival
- Delicata Honeyboat Japanese Black Futsu Black and White Hubbard*
- Gold Hubbard*
- Orange Hubbard*
*If you don't see Hubbard in our squash selection, talk to our produce manager about ordering some for you.
More About Squash
Amy Goldman’s The Complete Squash is a beautiful, definitive book providing profiles of main squash and how to grow and cook them. (Artisan Publishers, 2004)
Squashes: How They Grow, written in 1867 by James Gregory, who was an exceptional seedman, can be downloaded from the Library of Congress at http://archive.org/details/squasheshowtogro01greg.
See pictures of some common squash at http://whatscooking america.net/squash.htm.
[Jerry McClelland grew up on a farm in Missouri at a time when most rural families ate and drank what they produced, not knowing to call it either local or sustainably grown. She is retired and writes occasional articles about the natural history and cultural meanings of food.]