Soon summer will again bless the Virginia mountains. Once the tall oaks leaf out, that is.
And I’m already thinking of my old garden, Mary Randolph’s cookbook, and Hernando de Soto’s feral pigs. All ingredients, more or less, in my dealings with one of the three American culinary sisters: corn, beans, and squash. A tale woven from the scraps of history.
That last year there in the mountains, a wet, soggy summer foretold nothing good for my squash plants. And yet, to my joy, the water-logged soil yielded more than the mildew spreading like talcum powder across my prolific yellow summer squash (Cucurbita pepo), also dubbed crookneck squash.
About an hour before dinner one night in late August, I picked half a dozen of the young, fresh squash — all no longer than 6 inches. Tiny spines on the broad leaves of the plant pricked my fingers as I grabbed the first squash I saw. And tiny whisker-like hairs protruded from the yellow peel.
Mother Nature is ingenious in ensuring that species propagate by developing defense mechanisms such as strong odors or prickly thorns. With summer squash, the spines are a good indication of freshness, useful when choosing produce at the supermarket. No spines means old squash. Also, this variety’s thin, fragile neck makes it somewhat difficult to ship commercially, so summer squash available at groceries have been bred to have shorter, wider “crooks” than the variety I grow in my garden.
Botanists believe squash, like the ones growing in my garden, originated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Food historians credit Christopher Columbus – who voyaged to the New World in 1492 – with helping to spread squash to the Old World by returning with squash seeds. Images of various New World squashes first appeared in Italian paintings around 1515.
Today, almost every cuisine in the world features squash — members of the gourd (Cucurbitaceae) family — in one form or another, be it the thicker-skinned varieties such as pumpkin or the thinner-skinned varieties of zucchini or opo squash.
Summer squash a Southern staple
Yellow summer squash holds a special place in the repertoire of many Southern cooks across America. There’s the popular Stewed Squash and the old standby, Pickled Squash.
But another beloved Southern dish captured my fancy years ago: Squash Casserole, a gratin-like dish. Some cooks call it Baked Squash or Squash Pudding. Most recipes include a topping made from a sleeve of crushed buttery Ritz crackers, a quick answer to the problem of not having buttery breadcrumbs on hand.
A favorite side dish at Southern family reunions and other celebrations, Squash Casserole comes in about as many shapes as there are cooks who whip it up.
Mary Randolph, linked to the Virginia gentry, and a cousin-by-marriage of Thomas Jefferson’s, wrote The Virginia Housewife (1824), considered the first cookbook of the American South by many culinary historians and possibly the best American cookbook published int he United States. Her cookbook influenced other books, including The Kentucky Housewife and The Carolina Housewife. And, just like Randolph, I usually like to keep things simple when it comes to summer squash.
Translation: I never keep Ritz Crackers on hand. But I hoard breadcrumbs that I make from the ends of homemade country-style loaves.
Squash dish, made simple
In one of her two recipes for squash, Winter Squash, Randolph advocates boiling it and topping it with butter, simple enough treatments. I grew up eating yellow squash boiled with big chunks of bacon thrown in, a somewhat similar recipe.
For my dinner, I cut the squashes into small cubes, salt them, leave them in a colander for about 30 minutes to drain, and then rinse off the salt and dry the cubes. After heating a small amount of olive oil at high heat in my cast-iron skillet, I cook the pieces of squash until the cut edges brown. A twist of black pepper and a dash of smoked paprika and this side dish stands up well to most main courses, meat-based or vegetarian.
In the chill of those late summer nights, I longed for the filling heft of a casserole. Randolph’s other squash recipe, Squash or Cimlin — cimlin or “cymling” is an old-fashioned word for pattypan squash. Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife provides the following recipe, a somewhat close relative to modern Squash Casserole:
Gather young squashes, peel, and cut them in two; take out the seeds, and boil them till tender; out them into a colander, drain off the water, and rub them with a wooden spoon through the colander; then put them into a stew-pan, with a cupful of cream, a small piece of butter, some pepper, and salt, stew them, stirring very frequently until dry. This is the most delicate way of preparing squashes.
One interesting note: Randolph makes no mention of bacon fat in this recipe.
Bacon and squash, a tasty combination
One thing to remember about traditional Southern cooking is that pork, and especially pork fat, plays a starring role. History and circumstances dictate much of tradition when it comes to food habits. The American South is no different from France that way. Pigs fared better than cattle in the warm and humid Southern climate, fending for themselves in the forests. Pork could also be preserved better when salted and smoked as ham and bacon. Recall, too, that it’s highly likely that many pigs in early days descended from pigs let loose by Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer who trekked across the American South from 1539 to 1543.
The following recipe incorporates a number of cooking techniques mentioned in The Virginia Housewife, and yet honors modern tastes and preparation methods. What remains constant is the delicate taste of the squash.
And the tang of bacon.
Weavings and gleanings.
Yellow Squash au Gratin, Southern Style Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 side-dish servings
- Butter or shortening for greasing
- 5 to 6 cups yellow summer squash, cut into ½-inch slices
- 4 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or light olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely minced
- 3 tablespoons green bell pepper, finely minced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- 1 cup grated Jack cheese
- ¾ cup sour cream
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 1-quart, oven-proof baking dish with butter or shortening.
- Place sliced squash in a medium saucepan; add water to cover. Add about ½ tablespoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Bring squash to a boil; cook for 10 minutes until just barely tender to the poke of a sharp knife. Drain squash until almost all the water is out.
- Place bacon into a cast-iron skillet with the 2 tablespoons of oil. Fry until bacon is crisp. Remove bacon from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of remaining oil from the skillet; sauté onion and green pepper until lightly caramelized; add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from skillet and mix with bacon. Set aside.
- Add onion mixture, cheese and sour cream to the hot squash; sprinkle in more salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with a flexible spatula. Scrape squash mixture into prepared baking dish and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes and then turn off heat. Serve immediately.
You may substitute zucchini for the yellow squash. Or you can combine the two if you wish.
© 2021 C. Bertelsen