Just What is a Cushaw?

Friends Drift Inn Farm – Gardening

Green Striped Cushaws on the vine

Cushaw Article All Things Country    ·   Growing Cushaws at Friends Drift Inn Farm

Updated Feb. 2016

Cushaw Winter Squash is NOT a Lawn Ornament!

As harvest draws to close and the fall festivals begin, I note many of the yards around our little mountain community are dotted with traditional fall displays. There are fodder shocks, scarecrows, pumpkins, hay bales and an abundance of cushaws.

It makes me smile to see cushaws, my very favorite winter squash, but they are just not for yard decor.

Cushaws Are Good Eating!

Baked Winter Squash Cushaw with Raspberries

C. mixta is one of the ancients. It is supposed that cushaws were cultivated in Mesoamerica as early at 7000 BC. Still treasured by the Hopi Indians, Cushaws are traditional in Cajun and Creole cooking as well as here in Appalachia.

The green striped cushaw has been boarded on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, recognizing the squash’s unique flavor profile and acknowledging that the cushaw is in danger of being lost.

In 2012 Friends Drift Inn Farm cushaws were featured at a James Beard event. For a food writing farmer who believes in the power of the cushaw it is a memory we savor.

At the James Beard event, chef Jeremy Ashby presented a cushaw brown sugar tart. We love cushaw pies but to limit the ancient one to sweets would be a mistake! Cushaws have sweetness, but there is an earthiness too. Not quite an oaky flavor, but there is a background smokiness that invites pairings with game meats like venison, pheasant, and wild turkey.

Think about cushaw soup warm and comforting. Consider roasted cushaw a scrumptious item that works well alongside beef, turkey, or pheasant yet is equally at home as winter morning breakfast.

Breads, ice creams, puddings, cushaw as a recipe ingredient is only limited by your imagination. Let your mind go free! If you have a favorite pumpkin recipe, try substituting cushaw. But don’t stop there, push the boundaries!

Because cushaws have fallen out of favor, you will probably have to locate the elusive squash at a farmers market. Be bold. Buy several, they will keep. It takes a little elbow grease to break one down, but if you roast it and make it into puree, cushaw freezes just fine. You will have enough puree to move you through the winter and maybe even the spring of Elderberry Tide. It’s all good!

In Our Cushaw Community

In our community, several cushaws varieties are grown. There is the “hard shell” cushaw and the “soft shell” cushaw, both of the green striped variety. As the name implies, the hard shell variety has a tough rind. Old-timers talk about literally taking axes, to break the beloved winter squashes into manageable pieces. Around here, I would guess the average cushaw weighs 10 – 15 pounds, but some go as high as 25. Even the soft shell variety is a challenge to break down, but so worth the effort!

Cradling the cushaw on Coal Country Mornings with Jill and Dave East KY Broadcasting

Our local radio station having fun with the Farmer Brown cushaw.

In addition to the green-striped cushaw, there are other varieties of local interest. In Pike County, the Harless Creek community is known for the Farmer Brown White Cushaw. The story goes Farmer Brown grew acres of white cushaw. At Christmastime, he would share the cushaws with neighbors and friends as his gift. The Harless Creek Farmer Brown white cushaw was nearly lost during devastating floods a few years back. It makes the cushaw all the more precious!

At the farmers market in 2015, we offered a thick necked squat white cushaw called the Tennessee Sweet Potato Squash sourcing seeds from Baker Creek. The vines grow well, the cushaw is large. We find the taste more rather neutral, a starchy dense product that makes an excellent substitute for potatoes. We did not find the variety to be sweet, but still very agreeable with richly flavored beef dishes.

In 2015 we were blessed to have the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial as guests at our third annual Appalachian Seed Swap. They brought seeds for the white “Lincoln” cushaw to share, and I expect we will see more of this variety growing in local family gardens.

What is My Point?

Cushaws are becoming scarce because we have forgotten a staple of our Appalachian Foodways. It means cushaws could be lost by the next generation is we do not reintroduce the squash to chefs, to home cooks, and to the kids being raised up so they have the cushaw food memory firmly implanted in brains. Cushaws not only taste good, they are part of our culinary heritage. At one juncture in our history, cushaw was preferred to pumpkin. It is time to celebrate the cushaw again!

In the Friend family, a garden was not a garden unless the cushaw vines were running amuck. Like pumpkins, the vines sprawl. Like pumpkins, cushaws take most of the summer to mature up to 110 days. Cushaws are fiercely resistant to the squash viner borer insect which makes growing them instead of pumpkins very attractive.

At the original Friends Drift Inn the cushaws were lined up at our produce stand like battalions of pinstriped geese. (That’s what the crookneck winter squash looked like to me at age 5.) We are so delighted to be carrying on the family tradition!

Inn The Garden

It was my search for cushaw seeds that opened my eyes to the urgency of preserving heirloom seed. In 2011, I tried a variety from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The necks are thicker, not nearly as graceful as the cushaws of my youth. But the neck adds yield to the harvest; and this old fashioned variety was quite happy in our creek side field. I planted three hills and harvested 40 cushaws.

Nowadays we plant winter squash in rows, very long rows. If the deer stay out of the cushaw patch, we harvest several hundred of my favorite winter squash. As a market farmer the beauty of cushaw, and for that matter most winter squash, is late in the market season we still have product. Winter squash store well as long as they are kept in a cool dry place. In fact storage often increases the brix factor, making the flesh more sweet.

Loosing several of my prized cushaws to rot brought me to tears

If growing conditions are wet, cushaws are prone to rot in the fields before they mature. Cushaw are very attractive to deer. In 2015, we lost many of our precious winter squash to the varmints. As funds allow, we intend to erect deer fencing to keep the rats on hooves out of the growing fields. Nothing will stand between us and our commitment to keep the cushaw alive in well in central Appalachia.

Harvesting Cushaws early to get them off the rain soaked ground

As you plan your garden, it you have the space for the rambling vines plant a few cushaws this year. The satisfaction of harvesting cushaws is beyond measure.

It is going to take years to bring the cushaw back into prominence. The effort begins with you!

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Hat line divider-Joyce Pinson Red Hat

More Winter Squash and Cushaws at Friends Drift Inn Farm
Cushaw Pie Recipe Rich in Flavor and Tradition
More Cushaw
What is it about Cushaws That Make Us Smile?
Cushaw Recipes
Cushaws at Friends Drift Inn Farm

About Joyce Pinson

Joyce Friend Pinson is a regional farm-to-table columnist for the Appalachian-News Express. She is a local television host. Her column show and blog, Friends Drift Inn, explores food, gardening, and real life farm-to-table stories from the perspective of a baby boomer in Appalachia. Joyce has a background in agriculture, media, and small business. Joyce is an heirloom gardening addict and home canner. She has a penchant for big hats, pointy toed shoes, and bourbon. Along with her husband Charlie, Joyce really does live in a barn where they ballroom dance. And laugh. And cook. And giggle.