Squash and Pumpkins

We are all different…we are all the same.

It’s October, and anyone who knows me has witnessed the scene that plays out this time of the year.  It stars me, of course (looking dashing in some fall-colored plaid print frock), obsessively stashing away a precious hoard of winter squash and pumpkins, behaving like some overgrown, tail-less plaid squirrel-man who must make certain that he has enough Cucurbitaceae stockpiled to last until spring.

Which I never do; I always run out come February.

It doesn’t matter that every Saturday I return from the local Farmer’s Market with a plethora of winter squashes, hoisting more poundage than I can comfortably carry.  Or that every year at this time, every spare inch of every closet is converted to gourd cellar.  None of this matters because, apparently, my love of the dish consistently outpaces my ability to procure and store.  Go figure.  Fortunately for me, both winter and summer squashes are available year-round at my local grocery stores.

But that fact does not inhibit my hoarding tendency:  winter squash, like toilet paper, is something one can never have stashed away too much of.

I have always loved this time of year.  Besides being the season when one surrenders to one’s plaid squirrel tendencies, this is also the time of year when spiritual tradition takes a darker turn.  My imaginative Pagan friends begin to prepare for Samhain (pronounced SOW-in and meaning “summer’s end”), while on the other end of the religious spectrum, but oddly similar in production, those of the Christian persuasions prepare for Halloween (which, even with its continuing reputation for mischief and merry-making, is little more than a watered-down remnant of all that it used to be).

Samhain, originally a Celtic Pagan tradition, is a celebration which marks the day of the year when the veil between the living world and the dead world is at its thinnest, when the two spheres are able to interact.   Samhain is observed on October 31 (in the Northern Hemisphere) and is a celebration of the lives of those who have passed on.  It is a time to pay respect to ancestors, family members, elders, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died.  In some rituals the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities.

Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) is the corresponding Christian-based celebration, also observed on October 31 (the evening before All Souls’ Day), and is a time for honoring the Saints as well as praying for the recently departed who had not yet reached Heaven.  Pope Gregory IV ordered a church-wide observance in 837. By the end of the twelfth century, Halloween had become a day of holy obligation across Europe and involved such traditions as ringing bells for the souls in purgatory and baking bread or soul cakes (“souling”) for christened spirits.  It was traditionally believed that these departed spirits wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve offered them one last chance to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving on to the next world. To avoid being recognized by a departed enemy soul, Christians would wear masks and costumes to disguise themselves.

In modern times, the fickle Christians have attempted to distance themselves from this tradition and celebration.  Come Halloween, rather than costumes and trick-or-treating, they host “Church Harvest Parties” for their deprived children and complain about the escalating dark goriness of contemporary Halloween costumes.  They reference Satan worship, never mentioning that the holiday originated in their culture.

Poor, deprived Christian children.

In these dangerous times of razor blades and arsenic poisoning, trick-or-treating is, in general, a thing of the past.  Not so in my faraway youth, when on Halloween, at sunset, my mother drove her brood to the far edge of town and dropped us off, unattended and attired in whatever outlandish costume we desired (my all-time favorite being the year that she hand-stitched me a flowing witch’s robe and matching hat – without protest regarding gender specifics or appropriateness).

She then waited for us at the near edge of town, while we swarmed unattended from one end of the village to the other, collecting candies, cookies, popcorn balls, and nickels along the way, as well as acting like normal children and causing just the tiniest bit of mischief.  There was no need for worry:  in that small town and in that more innocent time, it really was a case of the village raising the children.  Had anything untoward happened to my brothers or I along the way, my mother would have been the first to know, duly alerted by one of her sewing group or book club friends before anything too serious had been allowed.

Times change, and change is not always for the better.  I am dating myself, for certain, but today’s children are missing out on a special rite of childhood:  a night when, in theory at least, one could romp unattended collecting all things unhealthy while being encouraged to make minor mischief.  We certainly egged a car or two, or soaped a window – innocent merriment that washed off with the next winter rain.  But most importantly, we trick-or-treated more goodies that we could possibly guzzle down in a reasonable amount of time.  Later that Halloween evening, upon returning to the farmhouse, we would pour our bulging goodie bags out on the living room floor and sort them, trade them with each other – my favorite in exchange for yours – but mostly, freely gorge until we nearly vomited.

Another Halloween tradition that is in danger of disappearing is, of course, the carving of the Jack-o-Lantern.  The term Jack-of-the-Lantern first appeared in print in 1750 and referred to a night watchman or a man carrying a lantern.  Previous to this, the term was used to describe a strange light flickering over the marshes and graveyards of Ireland.  If approached, the light always retreated and always remained out of reach.  This mystery is also known as “will o’ the wisp” and “ignis fatuus“, Gaelic for foolish fire. However, the story of the Jack-o-Lantern has legendary status that reaches far back into Irish folklore, beginning with a tale of a stingy drunkard named Jack.

Not to be confused with a stingy drunkard named Jackson.  Seriously.

Jack, an Irish blacksmith, had the misfortune of running into the Devil in a pub on Halloween.  Jack had had a few too many potato vodka and cranberry cocktails that evening and was about to fall prey to the Devil (as the modern day Jackson has been known to do on one or two or several dozen occasions).  But Irish Jack was no one’s fool – the quick-thinking trickster made a bargain with the Devil:  in exchange for one last cocktail, Jack offered up his soul.  To oblige, the Devil changed his form into a sixpence so that Jack could pay the bartender, but Jack quickly pocketed the coin in a bag containing a silver cross.  He knew that this would keep the Devil from reverting form.

Clever Jack.  Remind me, please, to always carry a silver cross in my coin bag.

Once under Jack’s thumb, and in his purse, the Devil agreed not to come for Jack’s soul for another ten years.  Promptly, ten years later, the Devil found Jack walking on a country road – on his way to or from cocktails, no doubt – and announced that he was there to collect Jack’s soul.  Jack pretended to comply, but asked the Devil if he would please climb an apple tree first and toss down an apple. The Devil, apparently not being the brightest star in the sky that clear autumn night, and thinking he had nothing to lose, climbed the tree as Jack requested, but as he was plucking the apple Jack pulled out his knife and carved the sign of the cross in the tree’s trunk.  The Devil was unable to come back down and Jack procured another agreement from him.  The Devil would never take his soul.

Years later, Jack finally died.  Mind you, the tale does imply that it was many years later.  Apparently, enjoying the hard life of a stingy drunkard does not always result in a shortened lifespan.  Thank goodness.

Upon dying, Jack reported to Heaven, but was dismissed from the gates due to his drinking, tricking, and miserly ways.  Again, please do not confuse Jack with Jackson, no matter how startling the similarities.

Jack then went to Hell, but was denied entrance because the Devil remembered his promise.  Jack asked, “But where am I to go?”

“Back to where you came from,” the Devil replied.

The way back was dark and windy, so Jack pleaded with the Devil to at least grant him light in which to find his way. The Devil, in a magnanimous un-Devil like manner, tossed Jack an ember from the fires of Hell.  Jack shielded that ember in a turnip he’d been eating (nom nom) and left Hell to make his way back home, where ever since he has been doomed to wander in the darkness, alone.  His name and turnip lantern eventually became synonymous with a damned soul.

But what does a turnip have to do with a pumpkin, you wonder?  Patience, my dear reader, is a virtue.  Stay tuned.

But first, more storytelling.

It seems that a fear of doomed souls (like Jack’s) venturing back to the warmth of their previous hearths on Halloween spawned a custom which continues to this day.  Originally, Irish villagers would dress in frightful costumes to scare away meandering ghosts. They also left food outside the door to appease the spiteful spirits, and carved spooky faces into turnips, potatoes, rutabagas, or beets, and then placed these symbols of the damned souls in windows or doorways to ward away ghosts.

Enter then the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-eighteen hundreds, which prompted a massive immigration from Ireland to the Americas, and along with the hordes of drunken, stingy Irish came their beliefs and traditions, including the symbolic Jack-O-Lantern turnips.  Unfortunately, the Irish soon learned that turnips were not readily available in the Americas and so they substituted them with pumpkins.

Ta-da!  Told you I would make this make sense.

Now for some well-deserved comic relief.

Q:  How do you mend a broken Jack-o-Lantern?

A:  You give it a pumpkin patch.


Seriously, even though the Jack-o-Lantern is the most common and enduring symbol of Halloween, the actual carving of a Jack-o-Lantern is another of those rites of childhood that I fear contemporary children are missing out on.  In my youth, my brothers and I were each provided one pumpkin of our choosing, a large spoon for seed removal, and one of my father’s elegant bone-handled butcher knives for carving.  The rest was left to our imagination, and the resulting faces, illuminated from within by flickering white candles, lined our country drive on Halloween night.

Unfortunately, today’s Jack-o-Lanterns are most often ceramic and electric, or even worse, plastic.  Times change, and not always for the better.

Seasons change as well, and despite my grief over the loss of childhood tradition, I continue to love this time of year when summer ends, when we again are reminded that life is an ever-revolving cycle, that the warm season’s vibrancy is most naturally followed by the long sleep of winter.  Is there any more solid token of this change of season than the sudden profusion of hard winter squash and pumpkins?

It’s only fitting.  The squashes turn with all of the seasons, spring to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter, and (if one has hoarded enough, winter to spring).  From late spring on, one can eat the fragrant blossoms (delicious when fried as tempura), and through the long, hot days of summer the zucchini and crooknecks and patty-pans fill our plates with their bright colors and delicate flesh.  But as the season darkens and summer passes on, the tender summer squashes give way to their larger, tougher-skinned cousins.

This time of the year, after the warm-weather garden is mostly cleared away, the squashes and pumpkins still squat on the ground alongside their sprawling vines, their rinds toughening under each night’s increasing frost and each shortened day’s slanted sunlight.  While a summer squash is light and delicate, and must be eaten as soon as possible after it is plucked, a winter squash is tough and dense and will grow all the sweeter for being stored many months into winter.

Hence my penchant for winter squash hoarding – it is difficult to name a tastier dish.

Last night for our dinner The Former Mr. Perfect served a delicious and aromatic butternut squash and Italian fennel sausage bisque, which The Current Mr. Perfect and I lapped up like hungry orphaned kittens.

. . .

. . .

Is that crickets I hear?

Or gasps?

Yes, dear reader, it is true:  The Current Mr. Perfect and I live with The Former Mr. Perfect, an arrangement that no one outside of the unconventional boundaries of this three-way relationship really understands.

But the three of us understand it.  And really, when it comes right down to it, who else has any need to understand?  Still, this unusual situation raises eyebrows, and not just heterosexual eyebrows.

A year and a half ago, when Current and I decided to take the plunge, and I asked Former if we could stay in my room “for a while” (Former and I had evolved to roommates by that point), I was really unprepared for my community’s response.  It was fairly universal and negative – even the responses from my most stridently liberal and non-traditional gay friends, those who loudly and proudly advocate for their own open relationships and, with their devil-may-care and sometimes slightly superior attitude, proactively besmirch the concept of monogamy and defined relationship roles.  One progressive friend even went so far as to scurry me aside, intending to issue an intimate and emergent image-saving warning.

“Oh, this is just weird,” he whispered.

I disagree.  Apparently, so do both The Former and The Current Mr. Perfect, for even though we are all deciding that it is probably time for us to finally split into two distinct homes, this has been a fairly convenient arrangement for all of us.  We have a cooking schedule, we have a cleaning schedule.  We have a routine.  We have developed a manageable triangular existence and, in retrospect, I realize that life often happens in threes.  At least my life does.

In high school, my best buddies were Beverly and Jackie – two of my plumper classmates, and the two girls whose hefty sides I rarely left.   We were a triangle of trouble, for certain, from cruising boys to drinking cheap sloe gin to smoking cigarettes and accidentally lighting Jackie’s 1955 Cadillac convertible on fire.  But the triangles of my life continued long after high school was finished.

When I met the Very First Mr. Perfect, he had unfortunately already fallen in love with another fellow, supposedly unavailable but unsurprisingly never leaving, and eventually becoming the wedge that drove us apart.  Later, in the Denver years, I was involved in two separate actual three-way relationships:  once when I became the boyfriend of a couple (no way that could come to a good end), and once when I became the long-term paramour of a married man (ditto).

The number three repeats and repeats and repeats in the story of my life, up to now when both the Former and the Current Mr. Perfects and I cohabitate in triangular bliss.  Maybe that’s just the way things happen in my life.  They say in landscaping you should always make plantings in odd numbers to keep it interesting; maybe my life, in general, demands the same.

How coincidental is it that squash is considered one of the “three sisters” in a wide variety of different Native American traditions, within tribes as disparate as those of the ancient Anasazi of the desert Southwestern US all the way to the Narragansett of the coastal Northeastern US.

Again, like Pagan Samhaim and Christian Halloween, it is a case of widely different cultures handing down the same oddly-similar folklore and tradition.  It makes me believe even more stridently than ever that we are all one people, with one history.  Period.

Can we just stop the wars now?  No one is right; no one is wrong.  We are all the same.

Squash is definitely a new-world plant; the word “squash” is an abbreviated form of the word askutasquash, from the Narragansett language.  Certain distantly related varieties of edible gourds were cultivated in Europe before contact with the Americas, though they were quickly abandoned in favor of their larger, fleshier New World cousins.  There is also some speculation that a variety of the pumpkin family might have been established in Africa prior to the advent of widespread global sea-faring trade, but on this there is no agreement. The theory has even been proposed that a buoyant squash, chock-full-o-seed, might have made the long trip across the ocean from Africa to the Americas, which to my mind’s eye is a charming, albeit highly unlikely, scenario.  Regardless, it is certainly safe to say that our ancient European ancestors did not cultivate pumpkins.  Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater:  be damned.

But back to the three native North American sisters, one of which is Lady Squash.  The other two in this triad are always corn and beans, these three crops being the first cultivated on this continent.  In addition to squash’s important role as a food source (interestingly enough, grown then for seeds rather than the flesh), the dried gourds were also used as dance rattles in many Native American tribal ceremonies.  Squash is also a clan symbol in some Native American cultures, such as the Squash Clans of the Hopi and Navajo (whose Squash Clan is named Naayízí Dine’é), the Calabash Clans of the Pueblo tribes, and the Gourd Clans of the Kiowa and Osage.

The Native American story of the Three Sisters varies only slightly from tribe to tribe, and the three sisters are uniformly corn, beans, and squash.  The three were traditionally grown in the same mound in the field:  the corn provided a ladder for the bean vine, and together the corn and beans provided shade to the squash.  In keeping with the triad theme, the Cherokee gardening tradition called for tilling the planting site three times.

Here’s my (heavily) annotated and (seriously) updated retelling of the three sisters’ fable, based on the story as taken from a recorded oral account provided by Lois Thomas of Cornwall Island, Canada, as found in “Indian Legends of Eastern Canada”.

A long, long time ago there were three sisters (in this version, we shall identify them as drag queens because I am certain that is what they were).  The three drag queens lived together in a field.  We are not told why, or how, they lived in said field.  We are only told they lived there.   I assume this was because they did not have condo associations or Hilton Garden Hotels back in the day.

These queens were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The littlest queen was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was always draped in brightest green.  We shall name her Beanie Bottoms.

The second sister wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun was bright and the soft wind blew in her face.   We’ll call her Squashella.  She’s was a little ghetto, for certain, but delightful as well.  Squashella could certainly hold an audience’s attention.

The third was also the eldest sister, the drag mother who always stood very straight and tall above the other sisters and tried in an elegantly maternal way to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl (Really?  In today’s fashion scene?), and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze.

Toss those braids, you tall Mama Drag.

You guessed it.  This is Lady Cornie Hole, who somehow reminds me of a polished-up Sharon Needles.  There is something manly about her drag; that is for certain.

There was one way the three drag queen sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always wanted to perform together. This made them very strong.  They were a strong, vibrant drag queen lineage.

One day a stranger came to the field of the Three Drag Queen Sisters – a mohawk boy.  Oh, Lord, look out sisters!  If there is one thing I have learned to exercise caution around, it is mohawk boys.  You must understand that the Current Mr. Perfect sported a dashing mohawk when I first laid eyes on him.  As did I.  Those mohawks are what first drew us together.  We were of the clan of the mohawks, and look where we ended up.

Just like my mohawk boy, the three queens’ mohawk boy talked to the birds and other animals, which certainly caught the attention of the three drags.  Very much like my mohawk boy caught my attention and refused to let go.  Nothing catches one’s attention quite as quickly as a mohawk boy conversing with a seagull.  I’m just saying.

After all, whatever do they have to talk about?

Later that summer, the youngest and smallest drag sister disappeared. Her other sisters were sad, but they never suspected the mohawk boy.  Those mohawk boys are tricky.

Even later that summer, the mohawk boy again came to the field to gather reeds at the water’s edge. There is no mention of what he was doing with the reeds.  Weaving placemats?  Cockrings?  Who knows?  All we are told is that the two drag sisters who were left living in the field watched his receding moccasin trail, and that very night the second sister – the ghetto one in the yellow dress – disappeared.

Now the elder sister and drag mother, Lady Cornie Hole, was the only one left.

She continued to stand tall in her field, however, and when the mohawk boy saw how desperately she missed her sisters, he returned the two younger girls and together, they all became stronger again.

Awww…isn’t that romantic?  Where’s my mohawk boy . . . I need a little cuddle.

Squashes, pumpkins, and gourds are all predominately of the genus Cucurbita, and are closely related to the cucumbers, muskmelons, and watermelons.   They all grow as annuals (meaning they live for only one growing season) and are frost-susceptible, so you should not plant them in the garden until all danger of a late freeze has passed.  They are categorized as either summer (thin, edible skins) or winter (tougher rinds and suited to storage).  Most summer varieties are classified as Cucurbita pepo and have relatively smaller fruits that are eaten when immature (some within 50 days of seed planting).

Winter varieties usually fall into the Cucurbita maxima classification and can be stored for several months.  The most common varieties are acorn, butternut, hubbard, and spaghetti.  Nutritionally, squashes are a great source of complex carbohydrates and fiber as well as being very high in potassium, niacin, beta carotene and iron.

Both summer and winter squash perform best in fertile, well-drained soils containing high levels of organic matter, and despite the Native American tradition of shading Sister Squashella, they do best in full sun.  Organic matter levels can be increased by incorporating well-rotted manure or compost into the soil prior to planting.  You can also apply an all-purpose, granular form fertilizer, something with a rating of 10-10-10.  Because squash and pumpkin plants are susceptible to leaf mold and mildew, foliar-applied fertilizers are best avoided.

Squash and pumpkins are commonly planted in hills.   Gather your garden soil into a mound twelve or so inches tall, spaced a few feet apart.  The mounding allows the sun to warm the soil and seeds.  Place four to five seeds per hill at a depth of one inch and then thin to two or three vigorous, well-spaced plants per hill when seedlings have one or two true leaves.  The latest practical planting date for summer squash is July 20. Winter squash must be planted by June 10.

For an earlier harvest, start plants indoors three or four weeks prior to the anticipated outdoor planting date. Since squash seedlings don’t tolerate root disturbances easily, start the seeds in peat pots, peat pellets, or other plantable containers. Sow three to four seeds per container and then later sacrifice all but two seedlings.  Don’t forget to harden the infants outdoors for a few days in a protected location prior to planting in the garden.

Control weeds with frequent, shallow cultivation and hand pulling. Water plants once a week during dry weather.  Squash bugs and squash vine borers can be serious pests.  Squash bugs have piercing-sucking mouthparts (like some mohawk boys).  Their heavy feeding causes entire leaves to wilt, turn brown, and die.  Several methods can be used to control squash bugs in the garden:  adults and their brick-red egg masses on the undersides of leaves can be removed by hand.  Adults can also be trapped under boards or shingles placed beneath the plants; turn the objects over daily and collect and destroy the hiding squash bugs.  Small, immature squash bugs (nymphs) could theoretically be controlled with insecticides such as carbaryl (Sevin), however, one must remember that squashes are pollinated by bees (as are most plants) and the chemical insecticides kill those gardener’s friends as well.   As always, other and safer methods of insect control are better advised:  why not wait until they are adults and then dispose of them?

Harvest your long-fruited summer squash varieties (zucchini and crooknecks) when they are about two inches in diameter and six to twelve inches long. Scalloped types – the patty pans – are best when they reach three to five inches in diameter.  The fruits should have soft skins/rinds that are easy to puncture with a fingernail, and their seeds should be soft and edible.

Mature winter squash have very hard, dull-looking skins that can’t be punctured with the thumbnail.  When harvesting winter squash, leave a one-inch stem and then store in a cool, dry, well-ventilated location (the Former Mr. Perfect’s shoe closet is a perfect example).

One last squash-related tidbit:  if, like me, you tend to dream about the foods you love, you will be thrilled to know that according to my Dream Dictionary, a profitable opportunity which one should make the most of will come one’s way if one’s dream concerns cooking or eating squash.

On that note, nighty-night.

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