American History Through Squash

by Sarah Dickert, Smithsonian National Museum of American History,
Sarah Dickert was an Intern with the National Museum of American History.

As a natively grown vegetable cultivated by the Wampanoag Indians, squash holds a special place in American history. Today, squash are most commonly known as those green or yellow vegetables vaguely resembling cucumbers, or the uniquely shaped gourds that pop up around Halloween. But there are dozens of squash varieties, ranging in shape, size, and color. The Victory Garden is growing five varieties of heirloom squash (cultivated prior to 1950), all of which have a story to tell about American history.
In North America, squashes are loosely grouped into summer or winter varieties, depending on when they are harvested. Both are summer crops but summer squash are harvested immature, when their rinds are still tender and edible, whereas winter squash are allowed to mature into the fall, resulting in fruits with fully developed seeds and tough rinds.
Squashes have a long relationship with human civilization, and seeds dating back 12,000 years ago have been found in Ecuadorian caves. In the Americas, squash was one of three primary crops, the other two being maize and beans. Known as the “Three Sisters” by the Iroquois, these crops work symbiotically. The corn provides a growing structure for the climbing bean vines, which help to better root the corn to ground so the stalks are not as easily blown over or washed out. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil, which in turn fertilize the corn and squash; this is especially important because corn uses a lot of nutrients. Growing maize in the absence of a nitrogen-fixer co-crop will rapidly deplete the soil. The squash vines act as living mulch to shade out weed plants and retain moisture in the soil, while the prickly stems deter pests from helping themselves to the harvest. Additionally, when these crops are eaten together, they provide a nutritionally balanced plate of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and vitamins.
Winter squash were an especially important crop for the Wampanoag Indians in New England because they could be stored through the winter. The word squash comes from a Coastal Algonquin language. At the Smithsonian’s Victory Garden, three of the heirloom varieties grown include:
White Scallop Summer Squash. The White Scallop squash is a Native American heirloom, grown by American Indians in the Northeast for hundreds of years. Around 1700 it was introduced to Europe where it gained popularity. Also known as the Pattypan squash, it is known for its small, round, shallow shape with scalloped edges. It comes in white, green, and yellow varieties, and is harvested when it is no more than three inches in diameter. It is very tender, and often served with its flesh scooped out, mixed with flavorings, and reinserted prior to being served. White Scallop squash can also be sliced, breaded and fried, or pickled as is done in Polish cuisine.
Long Island Cheese Winter Squash. Believed to be one of the oldest domesticated squash varieties selected for food, this squash was especially famous in the 1800s through the first half of the 20th century for making pumpkin pies. Named because it resembles a flattened cheese wheel, it looks similar to a pale pumpkin. Its flesh is smooth and sweet, and lacks the stringiness found in many squashes, making it excellent for baking. Known today as a Long Island, NY heirloom, those who lived in the area in the 1940s and 1950s remember buying these beautiful pumpkins at farm stands in the fall. By the late 1960s, however, the variety started to disappear from seed catalogues, inspiring some to save the seeds and keep this squash around. Today, many Long Island farm stands once again showcase this heirloom.
Cinderella Winter Squash. Then there is the “Cinderella” pumpkin. When young, the rind has a yellow color. It will turn orange upon maturity, and ages to an “ideal” orange red.

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