With Thanksgiving looming large, I dug up a draft of a poem I began a long time ago, when I was working on a series of poems about my New England roots. My mother’s ancestors on the Crawfold side planted themselves before the American revolution in and about what is now the town of Oakham. I think my distant cousin Evelyn was the last descendent of the Crawfords to live on the dairy farm in Oakham. There is a family cemetery, Greenwood, with headstones dating way back. A few years ago, I read a couple of my New England poems at a big Crawford family reunion where we dedicated the graves of a couple of ancestors and later at a ceremony celebrating the refurbishing of Greenwood cemetery. I regret to admit that I am not very interested in exploring ancestry, but I am proud to have roots in New England soil.
Hubbard Squash: An Etymology
This poem imagines the entrance of the word “squash” into English from a Narragansett or Massachusett word. Now if you Google the etymology of “squash,” you will find dictionary sources telling you it comes from vulgar Latin through old French. That well may be when it’s used as a verb; but since squash itself has long been a basic food in the Americas, I prefer the dictionary and Google results that trace its origins to Native American culture. One of these sources is the Library of Congress, (“‘Squash’ comes from the Narragansett Native American word askutasquash, which means “eaten raw or uncooked.” (Library of Congress, Everyday Mysteries, Agriculture) Thus I feel on relatively safe etymological ground when I create an admittedly imaginary narrative of the first encounter with squash by a European immigrant on what is now New England soil.
At garden stands along the Mohawk trail
they sprawl on makeshift wooden trestles,
overflow bushel baskets, heap on the ground,
great gnarly gourds, dirt-daubed
where they ripened heavy on the earth,
vine-bound, fattening in sun dappled
by their own umbrella leaves.
We know the pumpkin lumps best,
the children’s jack-o-lantern gourd bought
to hollow and carve, to glimmer-grin
on windowsills and front-porch steps.
For eating, we seek the sober squashes, blue
and silver and green and orange Hubbards,
shaped like big footballs, cool and bumpy,
piled next to rutabaga and its smaller cousins:
acorn, butternut, pattypan, crookneck, buttercup.
These hard-shelled, warty gourds demand
courage in the cook who lifts them one by one,
hefts each for weight, strokes to check for soft spots,
spongy prophets of rot, tattle-tales of decay.
We always choose a blue or a green one,
the biggest of the lot, to carry home,
rolling back and forth like a log in the car’s trunk.
There it broods a while on the kitchen counter,
disdaining groceries hauled home in plastic bags.
In my own warm kitchen, I imagine a goodwife
my foremother maybe, her family cold, hungry,
scared in that unfriendly, frosty November land.
She’s staring at a Native, a Massachusett
or Narragansett man who stands silent at her door,
a big squash, let’s say a Hubbard, held out
Between his hands in greeting, a soundless hello.
He says, “askutasquash,” and waits as she eyes
the warty gourd, another grotesque offspring
of this hostile, inhospitable, rock-strewn land.
She feels how heavy it is as she cradles its heft
She nods a puzzled thanks as he strides away.
The Hubbard stays greenly stolid on the hearth,
a curiosity in the way of her busy broom,
until the Native man returns, a woman with him
who sees the children’s hungry eyes and the good
food rolling into the hearth corner there.
“Askutasquash,” she whispers, and goes to work,
as we do each year: the ritual elevation of the squash,
the downward hurl, the flat, hollow thunk,
the split of whole into jagged orange parts,
the slick surprise beneath the knobby shell,
the hollow ribbed with seeds on fleshy threads
seeds we roast with salt and crack with greedy teeth
while squash custard thickens in crisping pie crusts.
My mother hurled her hubbard down the cellar stairs.
In this (my) story, the woman shows the goodwife
how to use an axe or tomahawk to split the winter fruit,
strong hands chopping jagged slabs of yellow squash,
a gift to the thin sister whose pale children stare
at the two women hovering over the steaming pot.
“Askutasquash,” the goodwife shapes her mouth
around the savory steam where her spoon dips down
to fetch up tastes for smaller mouths, her own taste
thoughtful, lips pursed to imagine adding a bit of sweet
a dollop of molasses, a dash of precious salt.
“Askutasquash,” the aproned mother teaches later
as they gather to bless the table where the new food
waits, offering thanks for the unexpected bounty.
One child repeats, “Squash, squash,” and down long
years later we echo the name, gift of those who loved
this land before we came to roadside stands along trails
they blazed before my people claimed them as our ways.