By Hugh Murphy
Squash––from the Massachusetts Indian word, askutasquash, meaning “eaten raw.” (Davidson, 749)
Central American farmers first cultivated North American squash over 8,000 years ago (Kavasch, 125). As time progressed, these hearty vegetables made their way across thousands of miles, settling into the gardens of American Indian tribes from New Mexico to Massachusetts. Today, many varieties of squash are celebrated for their past and present importance in the diets of indigenous peoples all across the continent.
The term “squash” is a blanket term that is applied to dozens of varieties of vegetable. Popular squash vegetables from the Cucurbita genus include; pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut squash, gourds and zucchini. All of these varieties are vine grown and ripen fairly late in the season––from late summer through the autumn. The vegetable fruits vary widely in color from orange to yellow and to green, among others.
Squash varieties are often separated into two categories: summer squash (typically Cucurbita pepo) and winter squash (typically Cucurbita maxima). There is no firm boundary line dividing summer squash from winter squash; rather, a squash falls into either category largely based on how it is used by the cultivator (Davidson, 849). Winter squash are varieties that are typically left to ripen longer on the vine, while summer squash are picked much earlier. Winter squash often develop hard, stiff shells or skins and contain less water than summer squash (Davidson, 770, 849). Winter squash are also favored for winter storage thanks to lower water levels and a more durable skin. Varieties generally recognized as summer squash include; pumpkins, zucchini, custard and yellow scallop squash. Winter squash include; butternut, cushaw and hubbard. Some squash, such as acorn squash, are often classified as both summer and winter squash.
Nearly all varieties of squash grow from a single thick, green vine or a smaller offshoot from this vine. Cucurbita plants generally produce relatively large, orange or yellow flower blossoms.
One cannot overstate the importance of squash as a source of food for the indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere. Squash is believed to be the oldest cultivated food in North America. American Indians planted squash long before the other “three sisters” plants (corn and beans) were cultivated (Kavasch, 14). Squash was grown and eaten extensively by the Pueblo tribes of the southwestern United States, as well as the Apaches, Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, Papago, Pima, Zuni, Navajo and Yuman tribes, among others (Niethammer, 149).
Squash were eaten at all levels of ripeness, from their first appearance on the vine as small green ovals, up through full maturity (Niethammer, 152). Mature squash were often baked whole in the coals of a fire, or sliced and boiled. Strips of squash were laid in the sun to dry and then stored for use in winter. Dried strips were rejuvenated in winter months by a quick soaking or boiling. Seeds were removed, dried, roasted, spiced and added mixes of pemmican, nuts or fruit.
After traveling with the Iriquois tribe in 1636, one French visitor wrote, “the squashes last sometimes four and five months, and are so abundant that they are to be had almost for nothing, and so good that, on being cooked in the ashes, they are eaten as apples are in France” (Berzok, 57).
Squash blossoms were also a popular food among American Indians. Infertile male blossoms were gathered in the morning before the flowers opened, and eaten fresh, fried, added to soup or dried and saved for winter (Berzok, 72). The Zuni tribe was particularly known for their love of squash blossoms. They fried the largest male blossoms and added the rest to squash stew (Scully, 89).
Squash were common decorum for men during ceremonial dances (Niethammer, 154). The hard, hollowed out squash shells were also used to hold and store water.
Berzok, Linda Murray. American Indian Food. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Kavasch, Barrie E. Enduring Harvests. Old Saybrook, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1995.
Niethammer, Carolyn. American Indian Food and Lore. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974.
Scully, Virginia. A Treasury of American Indian Herbs – Their Lore and Their Use for Food, Drugs, and Medicine. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1970.