Turkey, squash and pumpkin pie are the Thanksgiving triumvirate. And we will give thanks for all three, as well as the oyster stuffing, creamed onions and all the rest. A groaning board indeed to stand in for all the blessings the year has brought us.
Thanksgiving has been a tradition from our founding, but the harvest has been marked with festivities probably since the invention of agriculture. Squash was probably a part of our first thanksgiving meal because we know the Narragansett natives called this vegetable ‘askutasquash’ which means raw or uncooked. The Pilgrims shortened the name and before long were cooking and sweetening squash with maple syrup.
But what else do we know about squash?
We know squash and pumpkin belong to the same Cucurbita family.
We also know Cucurbita pepo is the family of what we call summer squash and it is probably the oldest squash family going back to 6000 BC. These squash originated in northern Mexico and in the warmer sections of North America. Cucurbita moschata developed later, around 3000 BC in Central and northern South America. These winter squash varieties spread throughout South America before Columbus landed. Their great benefit was that they could be stored for several months without rotting or losing flavor.
Cucurbita maxima includes pumpkins and originated in the valleys of the Andes mountains of northern Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. They remained very local and did not travel much beyond that area until the Spaniards arrived.
We know that New World plants including squash made their way to the Old World, where farmers and breeders multiplied the few varieties into many. Squash obviously did better in the warmer climates of Spain and Italy. We even know that squash was being eaten in Japan by 1600.
We know that Hubbard squash, butternut squash and pumpkins are among the very few varieties of squash to be found in the supermarket. If we go to the farmer’s market we may find a few other varieties that are less familiar. If you join the Seed Savers Exchange you can help preserve the many heirloom varieties of these common vegetables. I took a look into my Whole Seed Catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds to get an idea of how many heirloom squash varieties there are. Listed are 30 varieties of summer squash and 96 varieties of winter squash and pumpkins.
We know squash are easy to grow. Some of these heirlooms would be fun to grow just because they are so beautiful or so weird looking. Iran (C. maxima) is billed as one of the most beautiful squash “with a unique foam green rind that is mottled in soft peachy orange.” The name Red Warty Thing gives you a good idea of the squash’s appearance. For myself I harvested Lakota squash this year, a variety grown by the Lakota Sioux.
One old variety, the Boston Marrow, has a local history. In 1831 (or thereabouts) Mr J. M. Ives of Salem got seeds from a friend in Northampton who got them from a friend in Buffalo “after a tribe of Native Americans traveled through the area distributing seed.” These big orange-red squashes were the most popular commercially grown squash in our region for 150 years. Currently, the Boston Marrow has a place in the Slow Foods ‘Ark of Taste’ for its superior flavor.
The big Hubbard squash originated in Chile or Argentina and came to North America via the West Indies. It is thought that Captain Knott Martin, a North American seaman who traveled those routes to South America and the Caribbean, brought seeds to Marblehead, Massachusetts. We know that James J.H. Gregory, farmer and seedsman, was selling those seeds in 1844. We have been eating squash in Massachusettss for a long time.
So we know a fair amount about squash, but do we know how strong it is?
In 1875 William Smith Clark, President of Massachusetts Agricultural College, and a few of the faculty members wondered about this. They knew that tree roots could disrupt stone walkways. They also knew that even a bean seed had to “lift comparatively heavy masses of soil as it germinated.” But they did not know if anyone had ever tried to measure the expansive force of a growing plant. They determined to design their own experiment and President Clark wrote it up in the Annual Report for 1875.
They got seeds of the mammoth yellow Chili squash from J.H. Gregory in Marblehead and planted them in a specially prepared bed in Durfee Conservatory. The bed, 50 feet long, and four feet wide was filled to a depth of six inches with good soil and rich compost. The squash germinated and grew vigorously.
The Report states, “Never before has the development of a squash been observed more critically or by a greater number of people. Many thousands of men, women, and children from all classes of society, of various nationalities and from all quarters of the earth visited it.”
In addition to measuring the strength of the squash they measured the roots. The description of that process is long but they determined that after they counted every fine root there were about 15 miles of roots. They also estimated that they were growing at the rate of 1000 feet a day.
Then they devised a kind of metal basket or cage to hold the squash to which they arranged a fulcrum and lever that was changed regularly to hold increasing weights. The squash was planted on July 1 and on August 21 it lifted 60 pounds. On the 24th it lifted 162 pounds. By September 11 it lifted 1100 pounds and at the end of September it lifted 2015 pounds. The final measurement on October 31 was 5000 pounds! All supported by a squash that weighed 47 pounds.
I hope that this year you will all enjoy your Thanksgiving squash with a new appreciation for its vitality and strength.
Between the Rows November 22, 2014