The world’s creepiest vegetable, bar none, is the blue Hubbard squash. But that shouldn’t stop you from cracking it open and giving it a try in place of your old fall standbys.
It’s the size of a baby, teardrop-shaped, covered with warts, and colored a zombie-like blue-gray. If you happened upon one, unsuspecting, while strolling through the vegetable patch, you’d scream and run. We all know about giant, warty, blue pods. Aliens hatch out of them in horror movies.
Hubbard squash is a winter squash. This last a classification that has nothing to do with botany, but is all about squash use in the kitchen. Unlike summer squashes, which have delicate, edible shells and seeds (think zucchini) winter squashes have tough, inedible shells and hard seeds. And tough means tough. Amy Goldman, author of The Compleat Squash, says that the best way to crack open a Hubbard squash is to put it in a sack and drop it from a height onto hard ground. Alternatively, you can whack it, battleaxe-style, with a heavy-duty meat cleaver.
Squashes are formally known as cucurbits, a family that also encompasses pumpkins and gourds. Generally taxonomists bundle the edible squashes into four different species, of which the Hubbard is a Cucurbita maxima, along with the banana, buttercup, and turban squashes and the giant pumpkin varieties so popular for pumpkin-growing contests. All have come a long way from the earliest ancestral cucurbits, natives of Central and South America. These were tiny and bitter; archaeologists guess that prehistoric eaters gathered them for their protein- and oil-rich seeds.
By the time the European colonists arrived, squash had been cultivated by native Americans for 9,000 years, and were established as a sizeable and succulent component of the “three sisters,” the famous corn-beans-squash dietary triad.
European opinion of native squash was, at best, mixed.
The Pilgrims of Plymouth deemed the native askutasquash too “uncivilized to contemplate.” When served squash-and-seafood chowder by hospitable Narragansett Indians, they damned it as “the meanest of God’s blessings,” and once the Indians had departed, fed the leftovers to the pigs. Edward Johnson, a Massachusetts militia captain who wrote a disillusioning History of New-England in 1654, described the New World as a “howling Desert” beset with tribulations, among them wolves, bears, thickets, awful weather, earthquakes, and “Pomkins and Squashes.” These last, he added, the “poore people” were forced to eat.
Other eaters were more enthusiastic. Hernando de Soto in 1539 was clearly a squash fan, describing the taste as akin to roasted chestnuts; and the Dutch of New Netherlands declared squash scrumptious, especially when “boyled and buttered, and seasoned with spice.”
The 19th century was a hot era for squashes. Many new varieties were collected by American sea captains in the West Indies or South America, brought back home, and planted in local gardens. Among these was the Hubbard squash, which went on to make one American entrepreneur very rich.
Seedsman James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts introduced the Hubbard squash to the American market in 1854. He was vague as to its origins, but explained that he had received his seeds from a Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard (“a very worthy lady”) who had obtained hers from a Captain Knott Martin. Since Mrs. Hubbard had been the first person to promote the nameless squash – she said it was the best squash she’d ever tasted. Gregory named it after her.
The original squash was green; Gregory later developed the creepy, but still tasty, blue variety. His business, fueled by Hubbard squash seeds, took off, and Gregory went on to make a name for himself in squashes, publishing, in 1893, an authoritative how-to book titled Squashes: How to Grow Them. Squash, in fact, paid so well that Gregory was able to donate a new library to the town of Marblehead and to establish the “Gregory Fund,” which provided every local family who gave birth to twins with a new carriage.
If you can get past the fact that Hubbard squash looks like something that might eat the household pets, Mrs. Hubbard was right on: It’s delicious. The orange flesh tastes like sweet potato with a hint of pumpkin. You can use it pretty much like any other winter squash, once you get it open. Check out these sample recipes.