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Page 203 Squashes and Their Relatives Cucurbits (Cucurbita species) are a collection of botanically related food crops that includes what are variously called squashes, pumpkins, vegetable marrows, and gourds. Among the first plants used by mankind, 1 they have long been among the most widely distributed. Most are extremely versatile, being used as fruits, vegetables, edible seeds, and oilseeds, as well as sources of fodder and fiber. Traditionally, cucurbits have been particularly important in the Americas. Together with corn and beans, they were a nutritional mainstay of pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs. Since Columbus' time, however, they have become popular throughout most of the world. Today, they are eaten by millions of people, but almost nowhere are they major crops. Moreover, for all their value to people, cucurbits are (at least by comparison with the major grain crops) much neglected by scientists. This is unfortunate, because these plants, which typically are trailing vines with extensive roots and harsh (often prickly) leaves and stems, are well suited to the peasant or individual gardener. They have wide adaptability and are easily cultivated. Their needs are usually satisfied by moderate soil moisture, and once vigorous growth starts, they seldom need weeding. They are little bothered by insect pests or heat. When judged by nutritional yield and labor required per hectare, they are among the most efficient of all crops. Fruits are the major cucurbit product. Immature fruits are eaten as green vegetables. Mature fruits are boiled or baked and are important sources of starchy and sugary foods. The excellent keeping qualities of the ripe fruits of some species allows them to be stored for months—even years—without special care. And, if cut in strips and dried in the sun or over coals, the flesh of others will also keep for years. Nutritionally, these fruits are excellent sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and potassium. They are low in sodium. The young leaves 1 The archeological record indicates that some Cucurbita species entered into agriculture by at least 6000 B.C.
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Page 204 and the flowers (especially the surplus male flowers) of several species are sometimes eaten, and they, too, are sources of vitamins and minerals. In some species, the seeds are roasted and consumed as a snack and are often more prized than the flesh that surrounds them. The seeds can have protein and oil contents of 30–40 percent. Five richly flavored Andean cucurbits are discussed below. SPECIES Zapallo (Winter Squash). The squash 2 (Cucurbita maxima), called “zapallo” (pronounced za-pie-oh) in the Andes, is of exclusively South American origin. Its center of diversity lies in northern Argentina, Bolivia, southern Peru, and northern Chile, but by the 1400s it had been spread northward throughout the warmer parts of the Inca realm. 3 At the time of Columbus, it was still confined to South America, but today it is widely grown throughout the world, particularly in Europe, India, the Philippines, and the United States. It is a winter-type 4 squash and includes the table vegetable most often called “pumpkin,” as well as many common vegetables called “squash.” More tolerant to cool temperatures than other squashes, this species is grown as far south as the limits of agriculture in Chile. Using this species, Chile and Peru have developed the most gigantic form of all commercial “pumpkins.” Fruits of 20–40 kg are commonly found in markets. This squash is noted for its rich diversity—some authorities claim it has more forms than any other cultivated plant. In the main, the fruits are cylindrical, often bulbous, and have a central cavity filled with fibers and seeds. Some brightly colored, highly attractive varieties have become extremely popular specialty vegetables in the United States in recent years. Chilean varieties that have become common foods in the United States include Acorn, Banana, Boston Marrow, Buttercup, Golden Delicious, and Hubbard. Crookneck. This species (Cucurbita moschata) is apparently Mexican or Central American in origin. However, it must have been spread widely in prehistoric times because its center of diversity extends as 2 The common names of cucurbits are a muddle. Names such as “pumpkin” and “squash” are used for different species in different countries. There are no internationally recognized common names for Cucurbita maxima, C. moschata, and C. ficifolia. 3 A recent excavation in northern Argentina has disclosed a wealth of well-preserved specimens, suggesting that it was a common cultivated plant in northern Argentina at least as long ago as 500 B.C. 4 The name refers to an ability to be stored through the winter, not an ability to grow in the cold.
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Page 205 ~ enlarge ~ Zapallo can reach giant size. (H. Popenoe) far south as northern Colombia and Venezuela. Apparently, it was introduced to Peru as early as 3000 B.C. At the time of the Spanish colonization, the crookneck was abundant in northern South America and Central America. 5 Today, it is grown extensively in other parts of the world, especially in tropical Asia and Japan. Highly esteemed varieties in the United States include such cultivars as Butternut and Cushaw. It is the chief canning “pumpkin” of the midwestern United States, eaten each year by millions of families in Thanksgiving pie. It, too, is a winter-type squash. However, it is well adapted to the tropical lowlands where high temperatures and high humidity prevail. It is notably resistant to the pesky squash-vine borer. The plant yields five different products: mature fruits, which are baked, steamed, or made into pie; young fruits, which are boiled; male flowers, which are dipped in batter and fried as fritters (buñuelos); seeds that are roasted; and young tips of the vines, which are eaten boiled. The seeds have a delightful, nutty flavor, and were probably the product for which this plant was initially domesticated. 5 It had also been carried (probably via Mexico) to Florida, where the Indians grew its vines on girdled oak trees. Early Florida settlers adopted it and called it the “Seminole pumpkin.” Common names used in Latin America include ayote (Central America), lacayote (Peru), joko (Bolivia), and auyama (Colombia, Venezuela).
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Page 206 Zambo. Indians in the Andes commonly grow this “import” from Mexico. In fact, this squash (Cucurbita ficifolia) 6 has become so popular in the Andes that it is grown more frequently there than in its native land. 7 Today, it occurs from central Mexico through the high plateaus of Central America and along the highlands of the Andes as far south as central Chile. So far, it is little known elsewhere. This species is another cool-climate (but not frost-tolerant) member of the genus Cucurbita and is the only perennial among commercial cucurbits. It is pest resistant and short-day flowering. In some places, the rampant, irrepressible vine runs wild, climbing trees and shrouding shrubs with its figlike leaves. Its elongated or globe-shaped fruits may weigh 11 kg (even when not grown under forcing conditions) and are white, green, or white and green striped. It has white flesh and is the only squash with black seeds (a white-seeded race also exists). Cultivated extensively in the Andean highlands—mostly at 1,000–2,000 m elevation 8 —the young fruits are used like zucchini. The mature fruits are prized especially for desserts, usually cooked and served in sweet syrup. They are also fed to domestic animals (horses, cattle, and sheep) during the dry season. No fruit anywhere keeps as well as these. Mature, they are commonly stored (kept dry, but without any other special care) for two years, and yet their flesh remains fresh and actually gets sweeter with age. They are eaten boiled or in preserves. Immature ones can pass for zucchini in looks and in recipes. Especially delicious and nutritious is a pudding made by simmering this squash with milk and cinnamon. The seeds are baked and eaten like peanuts and are greatly appreciated. They have an unusually high concentration of oleic acid, the prime ingredient in olive oil. Achocha. Achocha 9 (Cyclanthera pedata) is not a true squash, but it belongs to the same family, Cucurbitaceae. It, too, is common in the Andes. The fruits are small “gourds” 6–15 cm long, with flattened sides and soft spines. Pale green with darker green veins, they have a spongy interior containing up to a dozen seeds. Some immature achochas look and taste like tiny cucumbers, for which they are fair substitutes in many culinary uses. (They are never 6 This species is known by several names in the Andes—for instance, zambo (Ecuador), Vitoria (Colombia), and lacayote (Peru). 7 Where it is called “chilacayote” or “tzilacayote.” In Costa Rica and Honduras, its name is “chiverre”; in New Zealand, “pie-melon.” 8 It is common, for example, in the coffee belt of Colombia, its immature fruits selling for good prices in Bogotá. 9 A Quechua word. In the Andes it is also widely called “caihua.” Elsewhere, it is known as pepino de rellenar (Colombia), pepino andino (Venezuela), and variations on “achoca” and “caihua.”
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Page 207 ~ enlarge ~ Achocha. (N. Vietmeyer) crunchy, however.) Others are covered in soft green spines and have a curious shaggy appearance. In the immature form (that is, before the seed becomes black and hard), they can be eaten raw or cooked. When mature, they are better cooked, and the hard, black seeds must be removed. Filled with mincemeat or vegetables and baked, mature achochas make a tasty dish, not unlike stuffed peppers, with a flavor that has been likened to artichoke. Achocha is undoubtedly of South American origin—probably including the Caribbean—but it is found in Mexico as well. In fact, the crop is cultivated from Mexico to Bolivia and grows prolifically in mountainous valleys up to 2,000 m elevation. Achocha has been tested in cultivation outside the Americas and seems to have widespread promise. It fruits well in subtropical climates, such as northern New Zealand. 10 In South Florida and southern Taiwan, it has grown and set fruit well. In Nepal, it is occasionally cultivated at about 2,000 m elevation and has escaped in places. In England, it has fruited in a greenhouse. In several parts of the Andes, a wild relative, Cyclanthera explodens, is used. 11 The fruits of this species are eaten by peasants, boiled or as a salad. Like achocha, this is a “poor-people's plant.” It seems to 10 Information from D. Endt. 11 Information from H. Cortes B. and J. León. This plant is so named because when the fruit matures, it throws the seeds explosively.
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Page 208 ~ enlarge ~ Casabanana. (E. Sarmiento G.) tolerate more cold than other cucurbits. It grows at 2,600 m elevation near Bogotá. Casabanana. Another cucurbit, this species (Sicana odorifera) is found growing around houses in the foothills and lowlands of the Andes. A fascinating and useful plant, its fruits look like long, cylindrical, red-colored squashes. They are edible only when young, at which time they can be eaten both raw and cooked. It is the mature fruits, however, that are most prized. Although inedible, they exude a strong, pleasant fragrance reminiscent of a blend of ripe melon and peach. They are used as air fresheners to perfume kitchens, closets, clothes, and Christmas crèches. In Nicaragua, they are used to flavor frescos, especially a drink known as “cojombro.” The casabanana is known only in cultivation (or as an escape from cultivation); its origins are therefore uncertain. It is probably not of Andean origin, although it was originally described from Peru. It may have been brought from the eastern part of South America—Paraguay or Brazil perhaps. The plant is well known in Mexico and Central America and has been introduced, as a curiosity mostly, to France and possibly to other European countries. 12 The young fruits are eaten cooked in soups, but 12 In Spanish it goes by many common names, including secana (Peru), pavi (Bolivia), cagua (Colombia), pepino de olor, melocotón, and melón calabaza.
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Page 209 the main product in Europe, as in Latin America, is this gourd's pleasing and penetrating fragrance that will perfume a whole house. PROSPECTS The Andes. In the Andes, as in some other parts of the world, squashes are considered to be food for the poor. Unfortunately, this means that they have not received the scientific recognition and research funding they deserve. This should not continue. Because they are so easy to grow and so well liked, efforts to introduce pest-resistant strains and improved modes of cultivation could bring big benefits to some of the neediest people in the hemisphere. Other Developing Areas. “Pumpkins” and “squashes” have vast potential in subsistence farming. They are exceptionally attractive to peoples lacking ready means of food preservation. And they are outstanding as multipurpose plants. As noted, the young fruits, mature fruits, seeds, and even flowers can serve as food. The germplasm of the Andes—home to many cucurbits for thousands of years—is especially important for the entire developing world. Currently, many Third World countries (Ethiopia, for example) have only one or at best a small number of squashes, and even those have almost no genetic variation. Thus, by and large, people outside Latin America are unaware of the wealth of types available. Industrialized Regions. Cucurbits now grow throughout the temperate world and contribute a wide variety of products ranging from the Halloween pumpkin of the United States to the glasshouse cucumber of England. The important cultivated species are major market crops in North America, southern Europe, and temperate Asia. In addition, there is large commercial production of cucumbers in a number of more northern countries. However, the types that remain in the Andes are an important unexploited resource. The squashes on the dinner tables of the future could be far more colorful and tasty than those of today. Cucurbits are excellent food for those who require acid-free diets. Most are noted for their keeping qualities. 13 Moreover, the casabanana, with its penetrating fragrance, and the achocha, with its eye-catching shaggy appearance, could both make unusual specialty-produce items in many wealthy countries. 13 Recently in Florida, for example, the crookneck has been found superior to the Cuban calabaza for shipping to distant northern markets. Information from J. Morton.
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