In my ongoing search for “lost” American heirlooms, one of the largest unexplored regions lies in southeastern and central Pennsylvania. This is an area known as the “Dutch Country,” the heartland of Pennsylvania Dutch regional culture, comprising some 25 counties and covering an area roughly the same size as Switzerland.
While many Americans incorrectly imagine that Pennsylvania Dutch means Amish (the Amish religious sect represents only about 5 percent of the total Pennsylvania Dutch population), the huge diversity of people and microclimates in this rich farming region continues to yield its secrets in unexpected and very un-Amish places.
In fact, one the most recent discoveries is a remarkable squash found this past summer “naturalized” along a picket fence on the grounds of Kutztown University in Berks County, Pennsylvania. There, right in open view to the world was an heirloom that has been endemic to the region for a very long time.
Actually, I had first run across this squash in 1974 while having dinner at the Fleetwood home of late Pennsylvania Dutch folklorist John Joseph Stoudt (1912-1981). Mrs. Stoudt had cooked the squash and used a few to decorate the table. The striking beauty of the fruit remained in my mind, and I asked at the time what it was called.
It had no name. Mrs. Stoudt had found a huge patch of it growing across the former lawn of an abandoned farmhouse along Dryville Road, barely half a mile from where the Stoudts lived. A few years before that, a neighbor found it growing in the graveyard of the Lutheran Church at New Jerusalem a few miles away.
I did not think to ask for seeds then, but I did when I visited the Stoudts again — only to be told that they had not bothered to keep seeds because they did not have a garden. I remember driving up to the abandoned farmhouse, which is still there today, but someone had mowed the tall grass around it and there were no signs of squash.
That seemed to be the end of the story until it turned up again last year at Kutztown University.
No one had planted it along that picket fence, but anyone exploring the back roads of the county is likely to run across a rambling patch covered with fruit: it has turned up along railroad tracks; it has been found growing up apple trees in abandoned orchards; it was even found covering an old bridge that had collapsed many years ago. Spread around by raccoons, birds, groundhogs? Pennsylvania Dutch legend in the area explains it as the mischievous work of the Waldmops, a friendly dwarf who lives in the forest.
Whatever the means of dissemination — natural or mythic — every year the squash shows up in the most unlikely places and since there are not many deer in the area, it thrives largely undisturbed.
According to local farmers, this nameless squash has been known for many years, going back perhaps before 1900 and there the trail ends. Some consider it a bothersome weed and refer to it as “the barnyard squash;” others recognize its culinary merits and use it in cookery.
Since it is concentrated in Maxatawny Township (Maxatawny is an Indian name meaning “bear path creek”), the staff at Kutztown University decided to call it the Bear Path Squash so that long at last our nameless wandering gypsy would have an identity tied to its place of probable origin.
This seems appropriate since Maxatawny was one of the most sacred burial grounds for the Unami Indians who lived in the area until the middle 1700s and who honored the bear as their “grandfather.” More important, this squash is extremely photogenic and well worth the effort of taming it for continued cultivation. Furthermore, the small 6 to 8 foot vines make it perfect for gardens of limited dimensions.
The average weight of each fruit is about 2 to 3 pounds. It is oblong in shape, ranging 8 to 9 inches in length, 4-1/2 inches in diameter, with yellow-white flesh. The stem end of each squash is deep orange-yellow with a dark green “star” at the base of the stem; it stays that color even after lengthy storage. The blossom end is striped and flecked with various shades of green and orange, and as the fruits mature in storage, the skin around the base gradually turns deeper and deeper orange. The flesh, however, remains consistently crisp. Even after it is cooked, it retains the texture of a raw apple. It is a perfect storage squash and will keep 8 or 9 months under the right conditions (cool, low humidity).
We have also identified its species as Cucurbita pepo, so when very young it can be harvested like summer squash or zucchini.
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.