It’s that time of year—my favorite. Now is when the yellows, browns, and oranges of the season take their places in the autumnal repertory of jack-o’-lanterns on stoops, gourds on tables, and pumpkin-spice lattes warming bellies. I feel very beloved as the fruit playing all the starring roles.
But let’s get a few things straight, because I can tell you’re mildly confused. I see it in your face every year when you learn that the “pumpkin” in your pumpkin pie isn’t what you pictured, but rather honeynut, buttercup, or some other squash. I hear it in your voice when you order a squash dish and the waiter brings a plate of zucchini. It is indeed confusing how many types of me have gotten squashed into a single category of fruit that Native Americans called askútasquash. In July, I’m springy zucchini; in fall, I am acorn, butternut, and spaghetti squashes, as well as pumpkins, which are great for carving and less great for eating in pie. Leave my winter varieties to dry on the vine, and I harden into gourds.
It’s that last iteration of me that got me where I am now. Most domesticated crops caught humans’ attention by being edible, but you took a liking to me because of how useful I was inedible. It’s probable that I’m the only plant that was used globally by prehistoric people and the first domesticated plant ever.
Why? Because dried and hollowed, I contain multitudes: I am a bucket, a resonating chamber on an instrument (see the marimba, and every rattle and shaker since the beginning of time), and a buoy on pontoons and fishing nets; I am a decoration, being carvable, paintable, and fashionable as jewelry; I am an eating utensil, a pipe, and a cooking pot (drop hot stones into me and you can boil water lickety-split).
Native Americans used me as birdhouses; even today, turning me into a purple martin house is a favorite project for crafty birders. I am so versatile that wherever people go, I still go with them. (Nigerian motorcyclists discovered what I’m not good for when the country passed a helmet law and many avoided buying real headgear by wearing gourds instead.)
I was at last bred to be eaten in Mexico around 9,000 years ago, at which point I made my way back around the world, this time as food. Making me palatable required breeding out the excess of cucurbitacin, which gives me a very bitter flavor. I still have traces of the toxin, and while some sources might recount its health benefits, in larger quantities you humans have actually gotten very sick and lost all your hair or even died from bitter squash. This is not something you need to worry about when I’m store-bought; the toxin level is high only when accidental cross-pollination with wild gourds takes place. But make note, gardeners—if your freshly picked squash tastes unusually bitter, skip eating me.
How should you eat me? Why, all summer long, of course—pick green and yellow zucchini that are tender and not too big, and consider my lovely yellow-orange blossoms, too, since they’re great in a quesadilla or stuffed with cheese. And this time of year, avail yourself of winter squash: acorn, butternut, spaghetti, or kabocha, all of which can be eaten with the skin on or off. Acorns, butternuts, and kabochas can be halved, seeded, and roasted till tender. Sprinkle sugar on me for a caramelized crust. Stuff me the way the French do, with a savory bread pudding or rice and meat, and you’ll have a beautiful autumnal centerpiece for your meal.
Because I become exceptionally sweet the more I brown and caramelize, don’t be afraid of cooking me at high heat (425°F, or even 450°F) and don’t pull me from it too soon. It’s hard to overcook a winter squash; once I’m soft, I stay that way, melting and wonderfully tasty. If you’re making a soup, roast and brown the squash pieces deeply and puree them for a deeper, bigger sweetness. Oh, and if you spot a green or orange kabocha squash at the farmers’ market, snatch it up. It looks vaguely like a pumpkin but is far more delicious (less carvable, though, on account of its substantial, carby-sweet flesh).
I may be versatile and so forgiving in the kitchen, but let’s just be honest: I am not pasta. Those popular zucchini noodles and squash “spaghetti” are bland and boring. So here’s a parting piece of human-friendly advice: Skip the “zoodles.”
Simple, satisfying butternut soup
Peel and seed a large butternut squash. Cut it into 2-inch chunks, lightly coat with olive oil, and roast on a rimmed baking sheet at 425°F until very tender, about 40 minutes, tossing for even browning. Transfer squash to a large pot or Dutch oven and add enough vegetable or chicken stock, preferably homemade, to cover (about 1 quart). Pour a small amount of hot water or stock onto the baking sheet and scrape up any browned bits; add to the pot along with a few sprigs of fresh thyme or sage, and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the herbs, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter, and blend until smooth, working in small batches and thinning as you go with stock to reach the preferred consistency. Season with salt and pepper and, if desired, cinnamon or nutmeg. Serve with a garnish: a dollop of thick yogurt, sour cream, or spiced whipped cream; crumbled candied pecans; or frizzled sage and brown butter.