To most folks in the U.S., fall means vortices of brown crunchy leaves, Halloween, carving jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin pie. We moved a lot as I was growing up and my mother made pumpkin pie from a can. That was all I knew until I started getting interested in both cooking from scratch and growing my own food. By that time, I had settled in the southern Appalachian Mountains where North Carolina borders Tennessee. My first ‘pumpkin’ pie from scratch was a disaster. I had no idea that pumpkins were so stringy! In fact, I didn’t even know pie (culinary) pumpkins were different than jack-o-lantern pumpkins. (Culinary pumpkins are sweeter, not watery, and finer textured.)

When I finally began to pay attention to local foods, I discovered neighbors who grew and ate cushaw squash, often called a pumpkin although not looking like any pumpkin I knew. It really looked like a Shmoo from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip. (You could eat shmoos, too!) I tried my first cushaw about 20 years ago, and I was hooked. The most popular cushaw in the south is the Cucurbita mixta 'Green Striped Cushaw' although in Tennessee, they prefer the white skinned, 'Tennessee Sweet Potato' Cushaw which I think looks especially like a shmoo even in coloration! The southern 'Sweet Potato Pie’ is often made with the sweet potato cushaw. Another white skinned cushaw is Cucurbita mixta 'White Cushaw' (aka Jonathon). Cushaw also are available as 'Orange Striped Cushaw' and 'Golden Cushaw'.

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Tennessee Sweet Potato Cushaw
Orange Striped Cushaw
Green Striped Cushaw Blossom


The taste is similar to many other winter squash and pumpkins, depending on how you prepare it and what spices are used. Some of the commercially canned pumpkin is cushaw or a mix of whatever winter squash is available to the producer. Cushaws are used in soups, pies, pickles, cookies, fritters, quiche, pancakes, breads and a host of other dishes. Their flavor stands out if roasted or baked with just a pat of butter.

Growing Cushaw

Cushaws need lots of space to vine! I start my seeds in a tray and plant them out when the soil has warmed, usually early June in my zone. They can bear several 10 to 12 pound or larger squash per plant, so plant accordingly. I generally only plant two to four seedlings, although sometimes I put out more and thin to the best as they start to grow well. Because they are so vigorous you will have an abundance and your neighbors will hate to see you coming… as though you had summer zucchini! Clean, unblemished cushaws will store for 2 to 3 months in a root cellar, not as long as some thicker-skinned winter squash.

One nice thing about growing cushaw is they are fairly disease resistant including a resistance to squash vine borers and squash bugs. Cushaws are a Native American open-pollinated, heirloom squash and are not too fussy about soil as long as it’s well drained but not dry. I have seen them vine into the shade and still fruit. They are self-fertile, and pollinated by insects. If you plant in early June, they should start flowering in July. They are not frost hardy so pick them all before your first frost.

Using Cushaw

When I cut open a cushaw, I first remove and save the seeds to roast. If I am going to freeze some as purée for pies or pancakes, cut the squash into manageable chunks and bake in a 350ºF oven for about 45 minutes, or until the squash is tender. When cooled, scoop away any fibers that didn’t come out with the seeds. Put the flesh through a food mill, package in whatever sizes you will use later, and freeze.

Green Striped Cushaw
Cushaw Cut in Half
Seeds and stringy center 'pulp'

If you are short on freezer space, canning is another option. Caution: the USDA Canning Guide DOES NOT RECOMMEND canning squash purée or squash butters even in a pressure canner, as it is unsafe. To can cushaw, peel raw squash and cut into I” cubes. Boil for 2 minutes in water then fill jars with cubes and cooking liquid. Adjust lids and process in a pressure canner. To use later in pies or pancakes, drain jars and sieve the cubes.
Cushaws are high in vitamins A and C, several other nutrients like potassium, and low in calories, so eat a lot of them in any way you can, and ENJOY!

Squash Risotto
Recipe courtesy of Gourmet Magazine

1 small onion, chopped
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1 small piece of hot red pepper or 1 pinch chili pepper flakes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup rice for risotto (arborio rice)
1 pound winter squash, peeled and chopped, about 2 cups
1/4 cup white wine (optional)
8-10 cups simmering lightly salted vegetable broth (made with 1 onion, 1 garlic clove, 1 carrot, 1 celery stalk, and a few parsley stems, cooked for 15 minutes) or simmering water
Salt (optional)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (and additional cheese for the table, if desired)

Put the onion, rosemary, and hot pepper in a heavy-bottomed 4-quart pot, drizzle with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, and stir to coat the onion with the oil. Cook over low heat until the onion is soft.

Add the rice, stir to coat with the oil, and cook for a few minutes to lightly toast. Add the squash and stir to combine with the rice. Add the wine if you are using it and raise the heat to evaporate the wine.

Add the simmering vegetable broth (or boiling water and a little salt) 1 cup at a time, stirring frequently with a long wooden spoon or fork, over highest heat. Boiling risotto attains the temperature of molten lava and it's wise to keep one's distance while stirring.

Add more vegetable broth when risotto is still surrounded by liquid, stirring often. After about 10 minutes of cooking begin to add broth 1/2 cup at a time. Taste the rice after about 15 minutes of cooking. It should be firm under tooth, al dente, since it will still cook for a few minutes. Liquid should be a little soupy because the Parmigiano cheese, oil (or butter), and final whipping will tighten up sauce, which should be opaque, bathing individual kernels.

Add the grated cheese and the remaining extra virgin olive oil (or 2 tablespoons butter) and stir energetically with a long-handled wooden spoon or fork, over high heat to whip the ingredients together. Remove from heat, ladle into individual bowls, and let risotto rest for a minute before serving. Top with additional Parmigiano if desired.

Copyright © 2006 Television Food Network, G.P., All Rights Reserved

Scoop seeds into a colander and rinse off pulp. Drain well. Measure seeds by the cup into a mixing bowl. For each cup of seeds, add 1 tablespoon oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt . Mix to coat. If desired, add chili powder, garlic powder, Creole seasoning or other seasoning

Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring, until light browned.

These are great for snacks, lunches, salad toppings, or appetizers.

Remove seeds from the pulp by hand. Don’t worry about getting them super clean, but remove all the major pieces.

Fill a bowl with water and enough salt that it tastes like sea water. Add the seeds and make sure they are covered with the water. Soak 1-2 hours. Remove seeds from the water and spread onto a baking sheet.

Bake until lightly browned (about 20 minutes) at 400F. If they don’t turn brown, broil for an additional 5-10 minutes, watching constantly. When cool enough to handle, taste for salt, adding more if necessary.

From Elements in Time: Creating Edible Landscape

Photo Credits:
Thanks to Dave and Farmerdill for their cushaw photos from PlantFiles. All other photos are by the author.