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From Mesoamerica to Potluck: Summer Squash Casserole

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Growing up every child in the United States has been told the story of the "first Thanksgiving" when Native Americans shared squash (Cucurbita in Latin) with the early colonists. We now know those stories do not fully reflect the relationship between indigenous people and colonists.However, we do know it is thanks to the first peoples and their sharing of foods (willingly or not) with early colonists that allowed them to survive in their new home. 


Squash is known as one of the "Three Sisters" and has long been an important food grown by those indigenous to the Americas. (The other two sisters are beans and corn.) We know food cultivation began in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 years ago and not long after, or around 7,000 years ago, it also began in Mesoamerica. This is where the squash story begins. Squash was one of the first foods domesticated in Mesoamerica with the first evidence found in pottery samples from Oaxaca, Mexico. Mesoamerica is the land now composed of the nations of Mexico, Guatemala, Beliz, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. It was not only a foraged food but eventually was intentionally cultivated by those eating it. Amanda Jackson of the University of Nebraska writes, "The relationship between these plants and the people who first cultivated them is best described not as a necessity but as a coevolutionary process." (Landon). As the people and culture matured and evolved, so did their practices of attaining food. 


Organic Squash Seeds
Squash and Sunflower Seeds Soon to be Planted in My Garden

How did squash end up on the Southern table? Squash is known to have been eaten, foraged, and grown in Mexico as far back as 10,000 years ago. The migratory patterns of people native to the Americas over the course of thousands of years means squash was carried as far south as the Andean Mountains and as far north as Canada. Squash appears in archeological records in middle America as far back as 4,000 years ago. The first signs of squash date back to 2280 BC and were found in the Ozark Highlands in Missouri. Other records of squash cultivation are found in Kentucky dating to 2230.  The Tennessee River Valley records show squash cultivation dating to 2000 BC!  Though additional information on the cultivation of squash, primarily in the form of bottle gourds, is not clear, what is certain is squash was a part of Late Archaic native farming and was one of the first such in North America. It is simply amazing to consider the use of squash in North America (gourds in this case) 4,000 years ago and know modern day people still use it in the same way. It is not uncommon today to see dried gourds as lamps or bird feeders at local craft fairs. In fact, one of my favorite Christmas decorations is a dried bottle squash Santa Claus lamp! 


Squash is one of the amazing examples we have of the global impact of thousands of years of migration around the world on individual cultures. Think about it!  A 10,000 year old vegetable grown in Mexico becomes a part of the food culture on 2 continents by many diverse groups of peoples who prepare it in many different ways. There is a Lakota phrase, "Aho Mitakuye Oyasin". It is translated to “all my relations” and indicates “we are all related.” It is true. In many ways we are all vastly different. In all ways, we are all related.


I remember growing up having a love of squash casserole. It was a good Sunday when this made it to the table. Honestly, most Sundays were good, especially during the summer. But when I saw Mama making squash casserole I knew it would be really good (only to be made better with peach cobbler). It was not until I was much older, with my own children that I asked her how to make it.


It is a simple recipe and one that I think any cook can make. For years it has been on my list for one of the recipes for the cookbook that has been written in my mind.. Now, as I am embarking on this task of tracing the food pathways between my favorite Southern foods and their places of origin, it's simplicity is something I am turning to first.


Squash plants in our garden!


We will grow squash again this year in our garden. Casserole is not the only way I prepare squash. We may have it coming out our ears. We will slice it and bake it on 400 degrees along with onions and peppers to be served as a light summer side. We will slice it and batter and deep fry it (we are Southern, remember). Finally, we will dice it into smaller pieces, add a diced onion, toss it in corn meal and flour and saute it in a little bit of oil until it is well done. 


Regardless of how you prepare it, it is one of the foods that belongs on the Southern dinner table!





We are 18 months into our new home! our forever home. It has been 18 months of home remodels, surgeries and other illnesses, work, increasing my business, AND going to school full time. In one week I'll get to start gardening again in our new space and I cannot wait! Until then, here is the beginning of our bumper squash crop two houses ago!


Works Cited:



“6 Things You Didn’t Know about Squash.” The Seed Exchange, 1 Oct. 2020, weseedchange.org/6-things-you-didnt-know-about-squash/. Accessed May 4AD.


Benz, B. F. “Archaeological Evidence of Teosinte Domestication from Guila Naquitz, Oaxaca.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 98, no. 4, 13 Feb. 2001, pp. 2104–2106, www.pnas.org/content/98/4/2104, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.98.4.2104. Accessed May 4AD.



Whitaker, Thomas W. American Origin of the Cultivated Cucurbits. I. Evidence from the Herbals. II. Survey of Old and Recent Botanical Evidence. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, May 1947, www.jstor.org/stable/2394459. Accessed May 4AD.









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