Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and it's time to think how our food comes from the garden to the table.
What would Thanksgiving dinner be without pumpkin pie? Not to destroy your illusions, but the Pilgrims' pumpkin pies were not of the Marie Callender's variety. In fact, they weren't pies at all.
Squash and pumpkins are native to Central America. By the time the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, squash had spread into North America. After the Pilgrims almost starved to death during their first winter in the Americas, they were grateful for the tasty new food.
They quickly shortened its Native American name — "askootasquash" (meaning "eaten raw") — to "squash." Europeans in both the Old and New World quickly adopted the use of these vegetables, and they became an important staple in their diets.
Early settlers didn't bother with pie shells. They would scoop out a pumpkin, fill it with milk and pumpkin flesh, and bake it for hours in hot ashes. They would then add spices and syrup to make a pudding. The tasty treat soon became a focal point for the annual Thanksgiving festivities.
So, did the early settlers use pumpkins or squash? Both winter squash and pumpkins have orange flesh, hard rinds and store well. After these, distinguishing features become a little more obscure and a little harder to separate. Many of the hard-rind varieties, no doubt, became early "pumpkin pies."
All squashes are members of the Cucurbitaceae family. Cucurbita pepo includes jack-o'-lanterns — or field pumpkins — as well as acorn, spaghetti and summer squashes, and some small, hard-shelled gourds and edible gourds. These have angled sides on their stems.
Cucurbita moschata are the butternut squash and some varieties of pumpkins. Cucurbita maxima includes the Turban and Hubbard squash and "Big Max" pumpkin, which feature round stems. Other cucurbits include Malabar gourds, "Green Striped Crushaw" pumpkins, bottle or white-flowered gourds, cantaloupe, watermelon and cucumbers.
Fast forward almost 400 years from that first Thanksgiving, and you'll find today's pumpkin and squash have some tasty new improvements. Best of all, they are not a one-time Thanksgiving treat.
Our fall harvest includes many wonderful varieties of squash. These are some of the most interesting, nutritious and useful of all our vegetables. Few plants we grow in our garden come in such an endless array of types, sizes, shapes and colors.
If your garden was not as productive as you had hoped, or if you didn't plant these tasty treats, don't despair. Local produce outlets and grocery stores have an abundance of squash for your dining enjoyment.
Squash are easy to grow in your garden and — even better — they are easy to store without canning, freezing or other complicated preservation techniques.
Long-term storage only requires you correctly cure the squash. After harvest, store them in a warm, well-ventilated place for two weeks. Temperatures need to be near 80 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning it's too late to do this outside. Use a sunny porch or bring them indoors.
If you do not have a warm place, use a fan to dry and harden the skins. After curing, move them to a cool (50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit), dry place. Most root cellars are not suitable, because they are too cool and too moist. With planning and care, it is possible to have squash almost year-round. Remember to check frequently for any squash that start to soften, wither or rot. Use those immediately — or discard them —to prevent damage to other squash in storage.