The Squash and Cucumber Family

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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The squash or cucurbit family, the Cucurbitaceae, has made three broad contributions to human pleasure and nutrition. These are the sweet, moist melons described in the next chapter, the sweet, starchy, nutritious “winter” squashes, which are harvested fully mature and hard and keep for months, and the not-so-sweet, moist cucumber and “summer” squashes, which are harvested while immature and tender, and keep for a few weeks. (“Squash” comes from a Narragansett Indian word meaning “a green thing eaten raw.”) When cooked, winter squashes develop a consistency and flavor something like those of a sweet potato, while the summer squashes and immature Asian gourds develop a mild but distinctive aroma and a translucent, slick, almost gelatinous texture. Fruits of Cucurbita maxima, the Hubbard and other winter squashes, can reach 300 lb/135 kg, and are the largest fruits of any plant. Most cucurbits produce a particular form of berry called a pepo, with a protective rind and a mass of storage tissue containing many seeds. All of them are native to warm climates, so they suffer from chill injury if stored at standard refrigerator temperatures. In addition to the flesh of their fruits, cucurbits also offer edible vines, flowers, and seeds.