Squashes are native to the Americas and Columbus supposedly carried seed back to Europe, but if all squash is native to the Americas, they spread quickly in some cultures, because some of the oldest surviving cookbooks have recipes for winter squash/pumpkin type vegetables. There must have been varieties native to parts of Europe as well as the Americas. Pliny, Galen (ca. 131-200), Dioscorides (ca. 40-90 AD), and others describe vegetables thought to be winter squashes well before Columbus.
The squash plant is indigenous to America and was cultivated to a large extent by the Iroquois and other eastern stocks. The word ‘squash’ is derived from the Algonquin ‘akuta squash’ or ‘isquoter squash (Colonial spelling). Roger Williams writing on the agriculture of the New England Indians says: ‘Askuta squash, their vine apples, which the English from them call squahes, are about the bigness of apples of several colours, a sweet light wholesome refreshing’.
Van Curler…wrote in his journal: ‘We had a good many pumpkins cooked and baked that they called anansira’. This was in December which of course shows the use of squashes in winter…A woman came to meet us bringing us baked pumpkins to eat’.
The squash was one of the principal foods of the Iroquois who even yet regard it as a favorite. The records of early travelers abound in references to the uses of squashes and pumpkins. Some of them praised ‘pompions’ for their goodness while others affirmed that the ‘citrules’ were hard tasteless things. Hunger and mood largely govern descriptions of food.
Lahontan records that the citruls (pumpkins) of this country are sweet and of a different nature from those of Europe [possibly explaining the native/non-native origins]. They are as big as our melons; and their pulp is as yellow as saffron. Commonly they are bak’d in Ovens, but the better way is to roast ‘em under the Embers as the Savages do. Their taste is much the same with that of the marmalade of Apples, only they are sweeter. One may eat as much of ‘em as he pleases without feeling disorder’. – New York State Museum. Museum Bulletin, Issue 144.
Charles Hawley’s Early Chapters of Cayuga History quoted Dr. Shea’s translation of de Casson’s Historie de Montreal which gives an account of the journey of Trouvè and the Catholic fathers to Kentè.
Having arrived at Kentè we were regaled there as well as it was possible by the Indians of the place. It is true that the feast consisted only of some citrouilles (squashes) fricasseed with grease and which we found good; they are indeed excellent in this country and can not enter the comparison with those of Europe. It may even be said that it is wronging them to give them the name citroilles. They are of a great variety of shapes and scarcely one has any resemblance to those in France. They are some so hard as to require a hatchet if you wish to split them open before cooking. All have different names.
Various tribes cut the pumpkins and squash into rings, or spirals, and strung them to dry for winter use. As late as the 1910’s and 1920’s they were still using that preservation method.
Documented varieties included: Crook Neck, Hubbard, Scalloped, Winter, and Hard pumpkin, each with its native name which can be found in the source listed below.
Preparation methods included the following:
Baked squash: Squashes were baked in ashes and the whole squash eaten, the shell and seeds included.
Boiled squash: Squashes were split and cleaned and boiled in water salted to taste.
Boiled squash flower: The infertile flowers of the squash were boiled with meat and the sauce used as a flavoring for meats and vegetables. (1)
Buffalo Bird Woman described boiling squash in a clay pot with very little water, continuously adding more squash as the ones in the pot cooked down. Sunflower leaves folded over the simmering squash served as a lid for the pot. Squash blooms were sometimes added.
She left detailed descriptions of slicing and drying the squash by cutting rings and threading them onto willow branches which were then placed in racks and left to dry. Knives made from the green bones of cow buffalo were used for this purpose, then eventually metal butcher knives became commonly used. – Waheenee. Wilson, Gilbert. Goodbird, Edward. Agriculture of the Hidatsa. 1917.