by Sarah West
All plants are wanderers through history, adapting to the demands of their environment, sculpted by the preferences of their consumers (human and otherwise). The shapes, colors, flavors, and distinctions of the plants we are familiar with today have long, often mysterious histories. The only thing we know for sure is that nothing—not an heirloom, not a hybrid, not a single F1 cross—is in stasis. Landing where we’ve landed, we get to eat what’s here.
Walking through the market this time of year, it’s clear we live in an age that values novelty. Nothing illustrates this quite as bombastically as the arrival of winter squash—a category of vegetables with an enchanting display of variability that, like the tomato, has seen a renaissance of interest in the past decade.
Squash are in the same plant family as cucumbers, a botanical tribe that originated on the Indian subcontinent. Somehow, via birds or sea currents, seeds found their way to South America, where the family’s genetics eventually morphed into what we know of today as squash. Those that stayed in India tended toward cucumbers, melons, and gourds. Three distinct categories of squash developed, each with its own environmental adaptations. When Europeans first arrived in New England, they found the natives eating a relative of our modern day Halloween pumpkin, a lineage whose domestication by early humans can be dated back as far as 10,000 years ago to a cave near Oaxaca.
Known as Cucurbita pepo, this branch of the family vine had already traveled widely, its genetics already deeply explored by millennia of Native Americans (and a few centuries of colonial gardeners) by the time a man named Peter Henderson emigrated from Scotland to New Jersey in 1843.
A student of the Royal Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Henderson wasted no time leasing himself a 10-acre plot of land in Jersey City and dove head first into market farming, providing vegetables and flowers to a growing urban population. His land holdings increased, and Henderson eventually switched his focus to seed production. He built top-of-the-line greenhouses, employed over 100 gardeners, and opened a flagship store in lower Manhattan (the former site of his store was later occupied by the World Trade Center Towers).
Henderson was a pioneer in early market farming (what we might call today “urban farming”). He wrote extensively on the subject, and sold only seeds he had grown himself, selecting new varieties and adapting Old World vegetables to New World growing conditions.
Though he may not have lived to taste it, Henderson’s company is credited with the release of the Delicata squash (which premiered in 1893, six years after Peter’s death). Likely the selection of a local farmer (seed catalogs of the day offered monetary rewards to growers who turned in high quality sports that could be developed into new varieties) that was then tested and marketed by the Henderson Co., the Delicata was an unusual C. pepo.
A branch of the family known more for its tender summer squash and stringy pumpkins, Delicata exhibited the delicate skin of its zucchini cousins while melding the sweet, rich flesh of a pumpkin with a finer, drier texture. For a winter squash, Delicata came in a surprisingly small package. Weighing roughly a pound, a Delicata cut in half made a meal for two, stuffed with an assortment of herbs, nuts, or meats. Its fine flavor, ease of use, and high yields made Delicata a popular seller.
As heirlooms go, Delicata’s story is short on details. Modern sources say it was also sold under the names “Bohemian,” “Sweet Potato,” and “Ward’s Individual,” and that it was popular through the 1920’s, at which point it fell out of favor (for a perpetually unspecified reason). Combing through scanned copies of Henderson catalogs, I found it listed up until 1951, not long before the company shuttered in 1953.
In the 1944 catalog, the new and novel Butternut squash made its Henderson debut (it was originally released by Joseph Breck & Sons in 1936), touting sweet, fine-textured flesh and a neck that was solid all the way through. Butternut is much better suited to commercial growing than is Delicata—thicker skin, longer storage life, and a higher weight per volume ratio likely attracted farmers to it. As home gardening diminished and commercial farming flourished, perhaps Delicata just quietly faded into obscurity, known to those who grew it, unknown to those who didn’t.
Along with Acorn and Butternut, Delicata is again one of the most recognizable squash varieties at market. It grows well in our short northern summers and we love it for the same reasons Henderson’s customers did—its delicious flavor and delicate skin make it versatile and approachable in the kitchen. We can just scoop out the seeds, slice it and sauté it, getting squash to the table in under 30-minutes. Delicata are still the perfect vessel for stuffing, and their cheerful green and orange striping still makes a decorative centerpiece.
But don’t hesitate! Delicata won’t last and they are at their best right now. Save the Hubbards and Butternuts for deep winter, Delicatas start to quickly diminish by the first of the year. I try to use the last of mine in one or another holiday feast, baking and freezing any remainders. This year I’ll be tipping a forkful to the bohemian behind the Bohemian: an innovator and wanderer, patron farmer of Delicatas everywhere.