Out of My Gourd: The Gourd Files


These are the gourds I purchased in Queens which I will be profiling over the next couple of posts. Ten cultivars, nine species (can you guess which two belong to the same species? Bonus question: which two radically-different species are members of the same genus?)


On a recent trip to the New York City neighborhood of Woodside, Queens, home to large communities of South and Southeast Asian immigrants, I was captivated by the wide variety of gourds sold in the grocery stores; many of which I had never heard of, much less tasted. Stricken by a case of gourd fever, I returned to the area on a gourd-hunting expedition with my friend Dressler, whose blog, Bitter Butter, is focused on the history of desserts and pastries. While Dressler explores the baking possibilities of our gourd haul, I’ll be cooking each one and profiling them in a series of posts.

Welcome to The Gourd Files.


What do pumpkin, cantaloupe, cucumber and zucchini have in common? If you said “they’re all fruits, even though we call some of them vegetables,” you’re right! But they’re also all members of the same family: the gourds.

You might know the sweeter gourds as melons, others as squash, marrows or courgettes, and still others (like cucumber) by a unique species name, but in many languages no such distinctions are made. In Latin they were all called cucurbita, and this catch-all name has given rise to our modern scientific terminology. Botanists know them as cucurbits, members of the family Cucurbitaceae. Nearly all cucurbit plants are vines. They share other traits like separate male and female flowers on the same plant and a hard-shelled fruit without segments inside, known as a pepo (which would be the perfect name for a cartoon gourd who has comic misadventures in a vegetable garden.)

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The flowers of many gourd species are just as edible and visually appealing as the fruit. I grew up eating squash blossoms Italian-style, stuffed with herbed ricotta cheese, battered and fried. Photo by Vegan Feast Catering via Wikimedia Commons (2009).


The gourd family is vast and varied, with close to a thousand species scattered across every continent except Antarctica. The oldest-known cucurbit fossil (from the Paleocene, 66-56 million years ago) was found in Montana, USA, but it’s difficult to know where these plants originated for two reasons: 1) continental drift and 2) human drift. Gourds are useful to us, so we’ve always brought them with us wherever we go. Take for instance one of humanity’s favorite gourds, the bottle gourd or calabash (Lagenaria siceraria). Young calabash fruit is edible, while the mature fruit can be dried to make a watertight container. Ancient humans were quick to pounce on this two-for-one deal. Around 14,000 years ago, calabash became one of the first species ever domesticated; possibly the very first. Early humans took calabash seeds with them on their many migrations, and they’ve been found in Paleolithic sites as far-flung as Egypt, Thailand and Peru. The voyage of Columbus was conducted from one land of calabash-growers to another.

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Calabashes make perfect bowls. Here, they are being used to mix millet flour. Photo by T. K. Naliaka, Wikimedia Commons (2015)


Almost every culture on earth is wild about gourds. And why not? Their uses are endless; they can be steamed or fried, spiralized or stuffed, baked into pie or squished into face mask, etc, etc. In West Africa, dried calabashes are used to make drums and other traditional instruments, while in India, the original loofah sponge was a tough, fibrous gourd called, you guessed it, luffa. The gourde is the national currency of Haiti, though it’s made of paper these days.

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Traditionally, the squash blossom hairstyle indicated a Hopi girl’s eligibility for marriage. Like many other indigenous traditions, it was actively suppressed by US government-backed schools beginning in the 19th century. Hopi girls were forced to cut their hair short to prevent them wearing the style. Today, squash blossom hair is sometimes revived for cultural events and ceremonies. Photo by Edward S. Curtis (1922)


In the American Southwest, the Zuñi and Hopi honor a stripy, gourd-headed nature spirit named Patung, the Squash Katsina. Unmarried Hopi girls once twisted their hair into distinctive double “squash blossoms,” a hairstyle which inspired that of Princess Leia. After bringing our beloved gourds everywhere on earth, it was only a matter of time before we brought them into space.

Human beings cultivate, use and celebrate gourds throughout the world, though not all of the almost-a-thousand cucurbit species are equally well-known. In this series, we’ll take an in-depth look at the flavor, history and personality of some of humanity’s oldest pals. They say dog is man’s best friend, but the first doggie-bowl was a gourd.

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Both the Navajo and the Hopi have lineage groups called Squash Clans, indicating the importance of cucurbits in their cultures. In Hopi culture, Patung is just one of the many katsinim (often written “kachinas”); benevolent nature-spirits with distinctive markings, represented by painted dancers and doll-like icons. Here Patung is depicted by one of my favorite fantasy artists, Ursula Vernon.



The Stonehenge Diet (Britain, ca. 3500 BCE)



All photos are my own from a recent visit to the UK.

For the prehistoric people of the British Isles, the Neolithic Period (about 4000 to 2200 BCE) was a time of settling.

During the earlier Mesolithic (10,000 to 4,000 BCE) and for countless millennia before that, Britons had been semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. Mushrooms and a variety of plants were harvested from the wild, many of them familiar to us today, such as nettle, crab apple, hazelnut, and sorrel. Fish were speared and various animals hunted, including waterfowl, boar, red deer and aurochs, the massive wild ancestor of modern cattle.


The skulls of an aurochs and a domestic cow side-by-side. Cattle were domesticated from aurochs in the Ancient Near East and brought from there to prehistoric Britain, where the giant ancestor species already existed in the wild. Wild aurochs were extinct in Britain by the second millennium BCE, but survived elsewhere in Europe until 1627 CE: which means that Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Martin Luther were contemporaries of giant Ice Age cows.

During the Neolithic, foods associated with a more settled lifestyle enter the human diet for the first time in Britain. Especially notable is the arrival of cattle and sheep, traded west over millennia from their original points of domestication. And while archaeological findings reveal that Britons were eating wheat traded from continental Europe as far back as 6000 BCE, it wasn’t until two thousand years later that they actually started growing it themselves. The first-known bread in Britain dates to 3500 BCE. No leavening agent was used; instead, coarsely ground barley and wheat were pressed together into a flat cake and roasted over an open fire. The roasted flour maza of the earliest Greeks might be an apt comparison. Perhaps Neolithic Britons would have enjoyed bread with other newfangled food trends everyone was talking about: beer, butter and cheese.


Food changes societies, and as prehistoric Britons transitioned from hunting and gathering to herding and agriculture, they began to live in permanent homes like the reconstructed one above, with a thatch roof and walls of wattle-and-daub, flexible woven branches covered in a layer of mud. Inside a home like this would be a single round chamber with a central fire-pit used for cooking and heating. The ceilings were high enough for smoke to dissipate safely without a smoke-hole in the roof (impractical anyway in the famously changeable English weather). Rising smoke was actually beneficial to the people inside, as it permeated the thatch roof and drove out any vermin that might be lurking there.


Examples of reconstructed Neolithic-era tools inside a wattle-and-daub home, including cooking implements and a fire-pit. Construction materials included woven plant matter, wood, hide, antlers, bone, and stone (especially flint and jet). Cooking vessels were made from fired pottery.


At the same time as these people were learning to raise cattle and sow wheat, and taking increasingly to a settled lifestyle instead of a nomadic one, they were dragging enormous stones to a place that would someday be known as Stonehenge. Today, the grassy, windswept hills around the stone formation look much the same as they did in prehistoric times, providing ample grazing area for herds of cattle. The presence of a natural stone or two may have inspired early humans to bring more of them, but we don’t know exactly why Stonehenge was constructed (leading theories include a tomb complex, a marketplace, a solar calendar, or some combination thereof. Or, you know, aliens). It was built up through successive waves between 3000 and 2000 BCE (the Great Pyramids of Egypt are around the same age, but only took a fraction of the building time).


Lacking the wheel (not to mention the forklift), Neolithic Britons may have transported the great stones to Stonehenge by rolling them across logs. How far away the rocks came from is still under debate, though some place their origin at Carn Menyn in Wales, nearly 200 miles away.

Some of our great churches and other monuments today have been under continuous use for a thousand years or more, but how many have been under continuous construction? Whatever impulse inspired the builders of Stonehenge, it continued to inspire them for centuries. Could that impulse have some connection to the shift to a settled lifestyle which occurred around the same time? Were the people who settled down to take advantage of new foods driven to create monuments like themselves: not transient but permanent, tied to a single place? We can never really know for certain. The food, words and wisdom of the Neolithic Britons has disappeared, but Stonehenge has remained.