Squash: The Prized “Ground Fruit” of the Northeastern Native Americans
By Jessica Diemer-Eaton (first published with Yahoo!Voices in 2011, updated 2014)
The horticultural Native Peoples of the northeastern United States were noted to love the taste of the squash and pumpkins they cultivated. These plants that were often grown across floor of their cornfields (3-Sister cultivation) were coveted for their refreshing flavor. Its flesh was added to soups, breads, and "samp," a favorite dish of corn mush. Squash and pumpkins were also enjoyed unadulterated, roasted and mashed or just plain raw - the name "squash" is shortened from the Algonquian term "askutasquash" meaning in "to be eaten green" (possibly insinuating before ripeness and/or eat raw). Roger Williams comments “Askuta squash, their vine apples, which the English from them call squashes, are about the bigness of apples of several colours.” In New England, Champlain was given squash the size of his fist, in which he and his expedition ate as a salad, most likely taking their cue from the Native folks who enjoyed squash both raw and cooked. Indeed, not only were mature winter squashes consumed, but immature "summer squashes" were also grown and consumed as well.
Squash and pumpkins were prized for their exceptional flavor and texture in cooked dishes as well. The Iroquois were noted to enjoy their squash baked and boiled. Mashed squash was added to a cornmeal or parched cornmeal pudding base, giving the corn another sweet element and a pleasing texture. Delaware cooks thought the flavor best when the squash was steeped in very little water, or just the juices of the squash. This was accomplished by sealing the top of the vessel that cooked the squash with large green leaves, the leaves of the squash vine being suitable among others for this task. A pumpkin picnic was observed in Pennsylvania where four Native people boiled it without any seasoning. They enjoyed not only the hot, steaming squash meat on impromptu plates of leaves, but also supped up the water in which the pumpkin was boiled with shells. Southern New England mothers also added boiled squash to walnut milk, creating a nutritious liquid food to feed their babies.
Pumpkins and squash were also dried for later use. The Native People cut the squash into strips or rings, hanging them to dry in the hot sun or along the smoky ceiling of their longhouses. When fully dried, the Ojibwa (Chippewa) took them down and stored the dried flesh in bags made of woven plant fibers, and sometimes kept such dried squash for as long as two years. Others were known to “twist” their squash strips together, possibly braiding them, to create ropes of squash meats for drying. Still some may have taken this farther and “woven” the squash strips into almost small tapestries of sorts… an example of which can still be seen in the Chicago Field Museum.
Along with the fruit itself being eaten, other parts of the plant were also employed in many dishes. As noted earlier, the wide leaves were used to wrap foods, in order to trap steam as it steeped or protect the food from ashes when they were placed directly on the fire to cook. The Iroquois used the squash blossoms to flavor stock, while the Ojibwa (Chippewa) claimed the blossom as a broth thickener. Pumpkin and squash seeds were also consumed, and possibly employed by some for medicinal purposes.
In the not so distant past, defining squash present in pre-Columbian eastern North America wasn’t an easy task, and often wrong past categorizations still creep up to infect current informational sources defining Native crops. To be clear, the squash species cultivated by Eastern Native folks is that of the Cucurbita pepo (and it’s relationship to C. fraterna and C. texana is still not fully defined – indeed many unknowns of North America’s squash varieties still wait to be discovered by scientists and scholars today). There were several varieties of the C. pepo grown in Native fields, and can be further broken down into two domesticated forms: ssp. ovifera (crooked necks, acorns, scallops, and most gourds, and ssp. pepo (pumpkins, marrows, and some gourds). It is worth noting here that several C. pepo taxa have been defined, often in contrast to other lists… even the science of categorizing and defining the origins of squash is still evolving.
When visualizing traditional squashes of the Eastern Woodlands it may be wise to consult some historical descriptions. Many colors, from flesh to yellow to green to orange have been noted historically to describe the squash cultivated by Woodland Native farmers. One such observer mentions squash that were "round, craneneck, small, flat, and large oblong.” Thick-walled and thin-walled squash varieties are both thought to have been cultivated in the New England area (probably many varieties were taken immature, thus summer squash was consumed). Thomas Jefferson claims a "long, crooked, and warted type" as coming from New Jersey, possibly insinuating a Delaware/Lenape origin. Indeed, the yellow crookneck squash, a type of C. pepo, is thought to be originally from the east. Keep in mind that many of our modern varieties of squash may take their genetics from original native eastern squash, but much has changed genetically for many. For example, orange and white acorn squash are modern variations, and zucchini, although a C. pepo, was more or less developed in Italy.
Squash’s antiquity as a domesticated crop in the Northeast has been questioned much historically among scholars, as, according to Patty Jo Watson, wild varieties native to North America (C. foetidissima and C. texana) and those introduced from Mexico (C. pepo) may be hard to distinguish when recovered from archaeological sites. However with today’s technology and data, domestication of squash (C. pepo) in the Woodlands is accepted to be most likely around 4000BP.
Undoubtedly, the varieties cultivated by the Northeastern Native People increased as squash from places like South America were introduced to eastern North America by way of European trade. However, even though some were introductions post-contact, the quick integration of these varieties attests to the antiquity of squash cultivation and consumption among the northeastern Native Peoples. And likewise another “ground fruit” found a home among Eastern Natives peoples in the same way. The watermelon of Old World origin was quickly adopted by horticultural Eastern communities, probably partly due to its familiar squash-like cultivation. As early as 1673-74, French explorer Jacques Marquette notes that the Illinois Indian People grew “melons” of which the red-seeded variety were excellent. Leonard W. Blake and Hugh C. Cutler point out that such reddish-brown seeds are only produced by some watermelons, and that a Kickapoo site in Illinois (occupied from 1760-1820) may have given evidence of more than one variety of watermelon grown. Although the watermelon is not from the Americas, it has been uniquely claimed by many Native folks as traditional Native fare.
-“A Woodland Feast” by Carolyn Raine
-“Acorns and Bitter Roots” by Timothy C. Messner
-Chicago Field Museum
-"History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States" by John Heckewelder
-"Indian New England Before the Mayflower" by Howard S. Russell
-"Occasional Papers in Anthropology" No. 3. Paper: Prehistoric Gardening and Agriculture in the Midwest and Midsouth by Patty Jo Watson
-"Parker on the Iroquois" by Arthur C. Parker
-“Plants from the Past” Plant Remains from the Rhoads Site, Illinois by Leonard W. Blake and Hugh C. Cutler
-“Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians” by Frances Densmore