Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Mysterious, Monstrous Cushaw

I had never heard of or seen a cushaw until late August when we were here in Kentucky, closing on our land and house. I first saw these monstrous squash—seemingly part zucchini/part something else—at a Mennonite produce stand and wholesaler along Route 501 in Casey county.

Mark F. Sohn, who researches and writes about Appalachian food ways and recipes from his home in Pikeville, Kentucky says:

“In early July, cushaw vines come into sight throughout Appalachia. In gardens and on small farms, the long green vines with high-growing leaves seem to cover everything. As the summer progresses and the temperature and humidity rise, so do the cushaws. They grow long and tall. At first the fruits are soft and small, but in July they gain size and become firm….these monsters decorate businesses and front yards, and sometimes they make it to the kitchen…

Some mountaineers identify two kinds of cushaw—green cushaw and white cushaw—but the two may not be botanically related. Both cushaws are related to pumpkin, and southern highlanders occasionally call the squash Indian pumpkin…"

The Native Americans call it “tewa” and it is one of the oldest Indian squashes. Sohn also notes that early Appalachian settlers used the flesh of the cushaw for food and the skin for containers because after several years the skin becomes as hard as plastic. Because of its size, good keeping and prolific growth in humid climates, Sohn calls it “the dominant mountain squash.” [pp. 45-47, Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture and Recipes by Mark F. Sohn, University Press of Kentucky: 2005].

Sohn also details a full cushaw-based dinner (“Imagine the yield of 30-inch-long, 20 pound cushaw,” he says, as one squash is enough for 5-10 different recipes) in his Mountain Country Cooking—A Gathering of the Best Recipes from the Smokies to the Blue Ridge (his third book, Hearty Country Cooking-Savory Southern Favorites was a James Beard Award Nominee). For additional information, please see Mark Sohn's website.

So, imagine my surprise when my husband came in with a cushaw pie today. One of our neighbors on a ridge to the south, Larry, used to teach agriculture courses at the county high school and has a large farm. During their visit (my husband likes “to visit” and has made “visiting” a verb), Larry baked four cushaw pies. I was apprehensive at first, thinking it might taste like sweet potato pie, which is too sweet and “yammy” for me. Instead I was pleasantly surprised by a light, mildly sweet and somewhat nutty flavor—like a mellow pumpkin pie tempered with summer squash. The pie was almost custard-like in texture, complete with nutmeg and cinnamon seasoning. He even dotted the top with miniature marshmallows before baking which only enhanced, but did not overwhelm, the sweet nature of the squash.

There is a recipe from a cookbook I do have for “Grandma’s Cushaw Pie” but it uses sweetened condensed milk that I’d prefer not to use (and I don’t think Larry does). That cookbook is Pride of Kentucky—Great Recipes With Food, Farm, and Family Traditions [Kentucky Extension Association & Kentucky Department of Agriculture: Franklin, KY, 2003] and is available here. [Mark Sohn’s books are now on my “wish list”] On a quick internet search I found a cushaw pie recipe made with cream, instead. And another, for Aurelia's Cushaw Pie made with evaporated milk.

You can also find a variety of information about cushaws, and buy seeds, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, an interesting farm and seed operation in the Ozark region of Mansfield, Missouri which I've only recently discovered (and have only just begun to dip into the wonders of their expansive website on heirloom seeds and history). This seed company was founded by 28-year old Jeremiath "Jere" Gettle, who has been collecting seeds since he was a young boy. Since 1998 he has been publishing an heirloom seed catalogue and has a following that has expanded into a store, extensive mail order, on-line gardening community, a new magazine, and a historic farm heritage museum. Their 8th annual Spring Planting Festival is May 4-5 of this year (a Sunday and Monday, as they are closed on Saturdays) and billed as "America's largest heritage gardening event". Road trip anyone?

So next summer when I see piles of these squash on roadside stands in Kentucky, I will not be intimidated. No, I will take the cushaw challenge and probably make just about every dish imaginable. I've done the same with zucchini, as many New Englanders will do, to the point of my family wanting to club each other with the surplus. But unlike the more tender and thin-skinned zuke, the cushaw can be stored. I knew there must be a good winter use for our storm cellar, built into a northeast hillside adjacent to our house, a spot that is naturally damp and cooland hopefully tornado proof. Instant winter root cellar!

I wonder if the old-timers around here had dual-purpose storm and root cellars? In any case, this idea will make my friend, Edie, and fellow Cupcake, very happy as she's been giving a lot of thought to root cellars of late on her blog about her garlic farm in New Hampshire, Bee's Wing Farm. I'll have to bring her some cushaws in the fall and maybe she'll trade me some garlic.

[Photo of cushaws, above, from—for more photographs and information, see this page of their website.]


Anonymous said...

I thought of you when I saw this pantry.

LBP said...

My great uncle Pete used to grow cushaws and make cushaw pie every Thanksgiving. They are strange looking and if I remember correctly they took up a lot of room in his garden. Unfortunately I don't have his recipe and he passed away many years ago. Thanks for the memory!


addzter said...

Mom- wow! I am drooling as we speak. Both the cupcakes and my favorite breakfast/dinner look amazing. I dont think i have ever seen them "pop" so well?! Must be that KY air. The boys look wonderful as well...and cushaws? I dont believe ive had those yet. What do they taste like?


Anonymous said...

What fond memories I have growing up in southern Ohio and of the baked cushaw my Mom used to make when I was a youngin. Both my parents are from Pike County, KY so they were very familiar with those wonderful winter squash. Very similar to pumpkin, but a bit milder.

I live in the northwestern mountains of North Carolina now and no one I've ever talked to has ever heard of cushaw. I did come across some seeds in a catalog a while back; I just may have to venture out and plant a few hills next year for myself.