Book Review: Fruit from the Sands by Robert Spengler (2019)

Since my last post, I’m excited to announce that I’ve been working on a series of food history videos with my friend, nutritionist and food vlogger Fiorella DiCarlo. But in the meantime, University of California Press graciously asked me to review a newly-published book on food history. Check it out below, and stay tuned for updates!

“As American as apple pie,” runs the old adage, even though apple pie was first baked on the other side of the Atlantic, in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. Food travels with the people who eat it, and apple pie has traveled far; though not so far as the apple itself. But the story of this ubiquitous fruit doesn’t start with Snow White, or with the golden grove of the Hesperides in Greek myth. It doesn’t even start with Adam and Eve (whose forbidden fruit, by the way, is never specified in the Bible and probably wasn’t an apple to begin with). The apple may be beloved across the world today, but it was born in Kazakhstan. Like many other plants with useful and pleasing qualities, it was dispersed in ancient times, bought and sold along the extensive trade routes that tied humanity together long before airplanes and express shipping.

Robert Spengler‘s Fruit from the Sands (2019) follows the ancient journeys of the apple and a variety of other important crops along the legendary Silk Road, overland trade routes that linked ancient Europe and Asia. As Spengler informs us early on, some historians prefer the plural Silk Roads as a more accurate reflection of the complexity of this commercial web. Most historians mark the beginning of the Silk Road as occurring during the second century BC, but Spengler draws on archaeological evidence indicating the movement of material culture as far back as the late 3rd millennium BC. 

Though the Silk Road(s) have no clear beginning or end, they do have a focal point: Central Asia, a region that gets precious little attention in modern times. I’ve long been interested in Central Asia, and I appreciated the spotlight it receives in this book. When most people think of Central Asia today (if they think of it at all!) they tend to picture empty plains where horse-mounted nomads roam, but Spengler demonstrates that there were already advanced, settled civilizations here more than two or even three thousand years ago, cultivating fruits, flowers, vegetables and grains and selling them to more famous peoples like the Persians, Arabs and Chinese.

Spengler is the Paleoethnobotany Lab Director at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, and the majority of the evidence he draws on is of the material, archaeobotanical sort: physical remains of plants that ancient peoples stored, discarded, or even placed in tombs to accompany the dead to the next world. Through this evidence he is able to trace the point or points of origin for each plant. For the most part, the names of individuals responsible for these ancient migrations are unknown, so it is the plants themselves who become the central characters in Spengler’s narrative. We meet major players like apple and barley as well as less-familiar faces, plants that have fallen into obscurity but were valuable to our ancestors: skirret, sea buckthorn, dragon’s head, gold-of-pleasure, and a type of millet called “panic” (ah, the endless possibilities for wordplay). Botanical genetics and morphology can get a little dry at times without cultural references to balance them, although this is more evident in some chapters than others. In particular, Spengler provides a lot of great literary and art historical references to two plant-based beverages that humans have never run out of words to describe: wine and tea.

Overall I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it, in particular about how humans influence the genetic development of our crops not only consciously, but unconsciously. For example, Spengler describes how differing grain-harvesting techniques in Asia and pre-Colombian North America produced differing evolutionary pressures on the grain, resulting in divergent development of the grain’s features. Some of the plants Spengler describes have been heavily modified by humans through selective breeding; others occupy a space somewhere between tame and wild, growing and presenting their useful features with minimal intervention.

The relationship between plant and animal, including the human animal, is a delicate balance of push and pull, adapt and adjust. Spengler identifies the direct human dispersal of plants via commercial activity with the inadvertent seed dispersal practiced by animals, who eat a tasty fruit and carry its seeds inside them to a new location. In this mutually beneficial relationship, one wonders which side is truly in control.

If you’ve ever been curious about the history of agriculture or the true origins of the fruits and vegetables at your local market, this is the book for you.

The Gourd Files, Vol. 3: Calabash


SCIENTIFIC NAME: Lagenaria siceraria. The calabash gourd is often confused with the calabash tree (genus Crescentia), which has similar fruits but is only a distant cousin. Calabash tree fruit has a long history with humans and can be used much like a true calabash, but this is a post about real gourds, so forget about it for now.

COMMON NAMES: Calabash is possibly humanity’s oldest crop, and as you’d expect, it has accumulated a ton of different names over the centuries. In English alone, calabash is also called white gourd, bottle gourd, long gourd, and New Guinea bean. South Asian grocery stores like the one where I bought mine (Patel Brothers in Queens, NY) use dudhi or lauki. English “calabash” derives from Spanish calabaza, a word of uncertain origin.

[Side note: “calabash” is one of my favorite English words. Not because of the fruit, necessarily; I just love the sound of it. Maybe I just like its resemblance to Caliban, one of my favorite Shakespeare characters. Maybe it’s the forcefulness of the final syllable, how the repeated vowel unrolls like a magic word: Abracadabra. Alakazam. Calabash.]

ORIGIN: The importance of calabash to human beings is twofold: the young fruits are edible, but the dried outer shell of the mature fruit makes an excellent watertight container. Calabash fruits may reach several feet in length and are variously skinny or bottle-shaped, straight or twisty, contributing to their variety of uses. Because of this, calabash has been cultivated by people for so long that we’re not even sure precisely where it comes from. Like another universally useful organism–the dog–there was likely more than one domestication of the calabash in Paleolithic times. People appear to have been using the plant in Asia from around 11,000 years ago and in the Americas from around 10,000 years ago.

Above: water containers made from calabash for sale in Kenya. Photo by Sam Stearman (2004).


How calabash got from one continent to another, and on which continent it started, remains something of a mystery. Some think the gourds floated across the oceans like coconuts, but calabash may simply have been so important that our earliest ancestors carried it with them everywhere they went as they dispersed around the world. In ancient times it was known to everyone from the Romans to the Chinese to the Taíno of the Caribbean, whose partly-submerged hunters wore calabash masks to sneak up on waterfowl. Medieval Europeans considered cucurbita (calabash) one of the plants of an ideal garden. Centuries later, enslaved people in the Americas planted calabash in their own gardens as a supplement to their meagre rations. A calabash was the “drinking gourd” of the famous Follow the Drinking Gourd song, said to have led the way to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

To this day, calabash has a place in the cuisines and cultures of just about every part of the world. In parts of South America, calabash is used to make the traditional container for the caffeinated beverage mate. In West Africa, dried calabashes are made into water containers, musical instruments, and makeshift motorcycle helmets. In Japan, thinly-sliced dried calabash strips called kanpyō (かんぴょう) are used in some sushi rolls, or as an edible wrapping to tie ingredients together. There’s almost nothing a calabash can’t do.

File:Cucurbita longa flore albo, protuberante ventre - Calebasse - Cucuzza a fiafca. (Bottle gourd) (NYPL b14444147-1124997).tiff


An illustration of a bottle-shaped calabash (here called cuccuzza a fiasca, “flask gourd”) from an Italian gardening manual by Nicolao Martellio, 1772. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, in the collection of the New York Public Library.



  • In Italian-American slang, googootz (dialect for calabash or zucchini) can be used as an insult to mean a stupid or useless person. Ironic, given how useful calabashes actually are.
  • There’s a long tradition in the United States, started by Native Americans, of making dried calabashes into birdhouses. These were hung in crop fields to attract the purple martin, a swallow-like bird that feeds on insects, as a form of natural pest control. John James Audobon commemorated the practice with a painting of martins nesting in a gourd.
  • The city of Calabasas, California, home of the Kardashians and various other celebrities, takes its name from Spanish calabazasPopular legend attributes the name to a 19th-century wagonload of pumpkins that spilled on the future site of the city, causing hundreds of vines to sprout the following spring. Calabasas still holds an annual Pumpkin Festival in celebration. [Note that as in many languages, calabaza can be a generic term for any large gourd species.]

FLAVOR: The white flesh of the calabash is mild and sweet, though not as sweet as pumpkin or butternut squash, and watery, but not as much as a cucumber or snake gourd. Calabash holds up well to cooking (though perhaps not roasting) and is particularly good for stir-fries and soups. I shredded one with other veggies for the Korean noodle dish japchae at my book release party a while back. But I could just as easily have breaded it, made it into curry, etc, etc. With its incredible millennia-long history of use by humans, calabash is in some ways the archetypal, OG gourd. If you’ve got a calabash on your hands, you’re bound to find a recipe, whatever your favorite cuisine.

They do look pretty serpentine, but these gourds are calabash (Lagenaria), not the Trichosanthes species more commonly known as snake gourd. Confusing moments like these are the reason scientific nomenclature exists. Photo by Jim the Photographer (2012) via Flickr.