The social distance imposed by the pandemic has me longing for the holidays and the warmth and goodness of home-cooked favorites. Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, there was one dish that my mother Wessie always included in both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner – baked cushaw.
The holiday dinner menu was classic American – turkey, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, yams, various green vegetables, congealed salad, freshly toasted salted pecans, and the family favorite cushaw made sweet and scrumptious with sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla and nutmeg. (I’ll share the basic recipe later.)
Cushaw is a green-and-white-striped longneck squash (Cucurbita argyrosperma; synonym C. mixta). If you are not familiar with it, you still may have seen a cushaw in among the gourds and squashes sold for fall decorating.
Cucurbits are members of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) that include squash, pumpkins, melons and bitter melons, cucumbers, and gourds. Cucurbita is the genus that includes five domesticated species that give us most of the fruits we call winter squash. They are “good keepers,” as we say in the South, holding up well for months in cool storage.
Cushaw is said to come originally from southern Mexico and/or the West Indies, but has made its way north to become part of the traditional foodways of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, Appalachian Tennessee, and Kentucky. Because of its delicious tender flesh (my theory) it worked its way into the French-Spanish-Indian-African cuisine of Creole Louisiana. It is a native American plant so maybe the Indians of Southeast Louisiana introduced the African and European settlers to it.
My mother prized cushaw for holiday meals. But she wasn’t the only one. Abraham Lincoln’s family brought cushaw seeds with them when they moved from Kentucky to Indiana and then on to Illinois. Today Lincoln’s Indiana Boyhood Home in Lincoln City still grows the heirloom squash from seed originally brought to Indiana by Abe’s father Thomas. The park even puts on an annual cushaw festival every October.
Cushaw is also grown at Monticello in in Virginia where Thomas Jefferson may have grown it in his big vegetable garden. Peggy Cornett, Curator of Plants at Monticello, says that, while it’s not known if the green striped cushaw was cultivated at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson documented numerous squashes including long crooked winter squash, cymling (pattypan), upper ground sweet potato winter squash, and warted summer squash. The green-striped cushaw is a perennial favorite in the Monticello gardens today.
I have also grown it in New England where it seems to do just fine. If you grow it, please give it plenty of room, just like growing pumpkins. The vines are lovely with big white-spotted leaves – like stars in the night sky – and deep yellow-orange flowers that are good to stuff with herbed ricotta and bake or fry. It takes ten to twelve weeks for fruits to mature.
They will be all different sizes and shapes, but count on at least a few fruits being big boys. I just measured my champion: It’s 32-inches long and 25-inches in diameter and weighs eleven pounds.
To cook it I’ve found it’s easiest to slice it into chunks, remove the seeds, and bake it face-down in a half-inch of water in a deep roasting pan for about an hour at 350° F. When fully cooked it scoops easily out of the shell. That is much simpler than trying to peel it.
Baton Rouge’s most famous cookbook is River Road Recipes created by the capital city’s Junior League. That book was published in 1959 and is in its 80th printing. It has sold more than a million copies. Well, here’s a good baked cushaw recipe from that illustrious cookbook:
I mash the squash with a fork before mixing it all together. Baking usually takes an hour or more. But talk about good!