Monday, April 30, 2007

Spaghetti Squash

An earlier discussion of Portobello mushrooms revealed how food changes in the not too distant past, within living memory, can be surprisingly obscure. So it is with spaghetti squash.

A Washington Post article on it from last summer, which opens with a complaint about pretend foods — and here I will admit that I enjoy some of the things it condemns, like Tofurky or soy burgers, more in their own right than as substitutes for things I don't even remember, and even more so the fascinating textures of the vegan mock meats I mentioned before — says:

The spaghetti squash is a New World plant that originated somewhere in the Americas. No one knows how or why it evolved into an imitation of an Old World vehicle for red sauce.

The Cambridge World History of Food (contents here) says (p. 1856):

This relatively new squash variety - the origin of which is uncertain …

The Food Chronology timeline mentions spaghetti squash under 1962 in a longish list of innovations by Frieda's, which began then. The online food timeline has Orangetti spaghetti squash for 1986. I believe in both cases the author felt this interesting vegetable warranted something, but didn't manage to find a full story. Surely with a little digging, there is more to be learned.

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Spaghetti squash is a variety of Cucurbita pepo Linnaeus, the species that includes zucchini (courgettes), crookneck and summer squash, acorn squash, pattypans, vegetable marrow (in dialects and places that distinguish that from zucchini), and some kinds of pumpkins and gourds. It is also known as vegetable spaghetti: this is the more common name in Britain. It has nothing to do with the BBC's famous spaghetti harvest hoax, whose 50th anniversary is this month. The plant is monoecious and varieties easily hybridize, while hybrids with the other species of the genus that Linnaeus identified don't occur without more work and the seeds aren't fertile. It is sometimes grouped with the vegetable marrows and other times there is a separate Vegetable Spaghetti Group. According to this article, an analysis of allozyme frequencies puts spaghetti squash and the marrows away from the rest (like the ornamental gourds). The names already get a little confusing, since spaghetti squash is one of the less common names for an Italian edible gourd, Cucuzzi, a variety of Lagenaria siceraria, the bottle gourd. Though I have seen it explained that way, I think this might be called spaghetti gourd not because it resembles spaghetti, but because it is eaten with it, or perhaps like spaghetti western. All these squashes have a tendency to get stringy: usually this is something to be avoided in breeding, but spaghetti squash deliberately aims for a pasta-like texture.

Since it is a recent introduction, most European languages follow the same sort of naming: French courge spaghetti or spaghetti végétal, Italian zucca spaghetti, German Spaghettikürbis, Spanish zapallo spaghetti, Portuguese: abóbora spaghetti, Dutch spaghettikalebas or spaghettipompoen, Russian тыква спагетти, Estonian spagetikõrvits.

The word spaghetti is the Italian plural of spaghetto, the diminutive of spago 'cord'. One of the inmates of the fourth bolgia of the eighth circle of Dante's Inferno is a cobbler turned soothsayer, of whom it says (XX 118-120):

Vedi Guido Bonatti; vedi Asdente,
ch'avere inteso al cuoio e a lo spago
ora vorrebbe, ma tardi si pente.

'See Guido Bonatti. See Asdente, who now regrets
not having worked his leather and his thread --
but he repents too late.

Spago is from Late Latin spacus 'cord', perhaps by metathesis of scapus 'shaft', or perhaps from Greek σπάω 'to draw [a sword]'.

In the 1936 fourth edition of his The American Language, H. L. Mencken, writing of foreign imports, says (p. 222):

In the Concise Oxford Dictionary, which is on every literate Englishman's desk, spaghetti is italicized as a foreign word; in America it is familiar to every child. But not many Italian load-words have got into American, probably because the great majority of Italian immigrants have been poor folk, keeping much to themselves. I can think of chianti (more generally known as dago-red), ravioli, minestrone, mafia and black-hand (from mano negra), and that is about all. Even the argot of roguery had been but little enriched by Italian words, though there have been many eminent Italian gunmen.

The 1921 second edition, which is online, has a mention of spaghetti and chianti, but none of the rest. So far as I know, no one refers to chianti like that any more, but the images of Don Corleone and Tony Soprano follow a continuous lineage back to Mencken's day.

Even still, it's hard not to be reminded of the scene in A Night at the Opera, from the year before (1935), with the steerage passengers eating enormous plates of spaghetti while singing Santa Lucia. The clips are usually on YouTube, but get yanked by Warner Brothers as fast as they get reposted, so it's impossible to have a durable link. The script also gives Groucho a couple of classic spaghetti gags:

Driftwood: All right, we'll talk business. You see that man eating spaghetti?

Claypool: No.

Driftwood: You see the spaghetti, don't you? Behind that spaghetti is none other than Herman Gottlieb, director of the New York Opera Company. Do you follow me?

Claypool: Yes.

Driftwood: Well stop following me, or I'll have you arrested!


Tonight marks the American debut of Rodolfo Lassparri.
Signor Lassparri comes from a very famous family.
His mother was a well-known bass singer.
His father was the first man to stuff spaghetti with bicarbonate of soda,
thus causing and curing indigestion at the same time.

Squash is one of the Three Sisters, with corn (maize) and beans, of Native American agriculture. The word squash is from askútasquash, in Massachusett, Narragansett, and the related Algonquian languages of New England. It means 'things that are eaten raw'. According to Trumbull, asq means 'raw' or 'green' and -ash is a plural indicator. (Following Cotton; see Trumbull's later Dictionary. In a comment, KCinDC points out that the proposed etymology for Eskimo 'eater of raw flesh' is from Abnaki askimo or Ojibwa ashkimeq, from Proto-Algonquian *ašk- 'raw' + *-po 'eat'. See this JSTOR article, this LL post, this LH post and the FAQ it points to for various perspectives in the dispute.)

The word occurs in several 17th century books. William Wood's 1634 book, New England's Prospect (also reprinted), contains the earliest vocabulary of Massachusett. For instance, it records how to count to twenty (here in EEBO): a quit, nees, nis, yoaw, abbona, ocqinta, enotta, sonaske, assaquoquin, piocke, appona qiut, apponees, apponis, appoyoaw, apponabonna, apponaquinta, apponenotta, apponsonaske, apponasquoquin, neenisshicke. It says (p. 67):

In Summer, when their corne is ſpent, iſqouterſquashes is their beſt bread; a fruite like a Pumpion.

Roger Williams' 1643 book, A Key into the Language of America (again reprinted), has (p. 103):

Askútaſquaſh, their Vine aples, which the Engliſh from them call Squaſhes about the bigneſſe of Apples of ſeverall colours, a ſweet, light wholeſome refreſhing.

John Josselyn's 1672 book, New-Englands Rarities Discovered (reprints harder to find, but there is one in Google Books) says (p. 57):

Squaſhes, but more truly Squonterſquashes, a kind of Mellon, or rather Gourd, for they oftentimes degenerate into Gourds;

Here is the Vulgate verse of the Israelites' complaint, which I cited in the garlic post:

recordamur piscium quos comedebamus in Ægypto gratis: in mentem nobis veniunt cucumeres, et pepones, porrique, et cæpe, et allia.

We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free cost: the cucumbers come into our mind, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic. (tr. Douay-Rheims)

John Eliot produced a Massachusett Bible translation in 1663. Strangely, there do not seem to be facsimiles of this online or in print. There is a transcription online. Note that the files there are written in cp437, which most browsers do not support. I used iconv under MinGW to convert them to UTF. I also follow that site in using for Eliot's double-o. And the 1666 grammar has a reprint. He uses askútasquash for cucumeres:

Nummehquánumômun namohsog neg m∞whakutcheg ut Egypt, wutche monteag ask∞tasquash, kah monask∞tasquash, kah leeksash, kah weenuwasog, kah garlick.

Interestingly, Wycliffe's Middle English Bible uses gourd for cucumeres (here are early and late translations side-by-side):

We recorden of the fisshes that we eten in Egipte gladly; into mynde come to vs the goordis, and the peponys, and the leeke, and the vniowns, and the garlekes;

We thenken on the fischis whiche we eten in Egipt freli; gourdis, and melouns, and lekis, and oyniouns, and garlekis comen in to mynde to vs;

An anonymous (i.e., non-Ælfric) part of the Old English Hexateuch borrows cucumeres, giving it an Old English gloss eorðæpla 'earth apples' (cf. French pomme de terre and Austrian Erdapfel, which are 'potato', which is bound to be the subject of a later post), as well as pepones.

We gemunon hu fela fixa we hæfdon to gyfe on Egypta lande, & we hæfdon cucumeres, þæt sind eorðæpla, & pepones & porleac & enneleac & manega oþre þingc.

Also, the Latin text the translator was using has alia for allia, leading to 'many other things' for 'garlic'.

Here is Mencken again, on new words formed by shortening (p. 169; mostly the same in the earlier edition):

Rattler for rattlesnake, pike for turnpike, coon for raccoon, possum for opossum, cuss for customer, squash for askutasquash — these American clipped forms are already antique;

Today, the first four are regional or otherwise non-standard (standard American English spells the o in opossum, even if silent), the next looks wrong, and only squash remains to illustrate the point, which shows the risk in predicting language change. A footnote in this section refers to Otto Jespersen's 1919 work, Growth and Structure of the English Language. One of the ideas in that book is worked out in further detail in a 1928 lecture, “Monosyllabism in English”, which describes some of the factors involved and makes some comparisons to the even more dramatically monosyllabic language Chinese. Summing some of these up (p. 621 in Selected Writings):

English monosyllabism thus is seen to have sprung not from one, but from several sources.

To which there is a footnote:

It may also be mentioned as characteristic of the English tendency towards monosyllabism that the long Narragansett Indian name of a kind of gourd asquutasquash has been adopted in the short form squash.

Robert Beverley's 1705 work, The History and Present State of Virginia, (a facsimile of the second enlarged edition is in ECCO) says (p. 124 or here online):

Yet the Clypeatæ are ſometimes call'd Cymnels (as are ſome others alſo) from the Lenten Cake of that Name, which many of them very much reſemble. Squaſh, or Squanter-Squaſh, is their Name among the Northern Indians, and ſo they are call'd in New-York, and New-England.

The word cymnel for pattypan or scallop varieties is not used this far north. So it was once the subject of a LanguageHat post. Thomas Jefferson does write in his 1782 book, Notes on the State of Virginia, listing some plants found by the English there (online):

Pumpkins. Cucurbita pepo.
Cymlings. Cucurbita verrucosa.
Squashes. Cucurbita melopepo.

There are other historical names and descriptions of squash that occur earlier.

Jacques Cartier wrote a report in 1545 of his 1535-6 voyage, Brief recit, & succincte narration, de la nauigation faicte es ysles de Canada … He notes (p. 31):

Pareillemẽt ilz on grand quantité de gros melons, concombres, & courges, poix, & febues, & de toutes couleurs, non la ſorte de noſtres.

They have also great store of Muske-milions, Pompions, Gourds, Cucumbers, Peason and Beanes of every colour, yet differing from ours. (tr. Hakluyt)

Thomas Harriot's 1586 account, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (there is an inexpensive Dover reprint), says (p. 14 / 22):

Macócqwer, according to their ſeuerall forms called by vs, Pompions, Mellions, and Gourdes, becauſe they are of the like formes as thoſe kindes in England.

Samuel de Champlain's 1612 map of New France illustrates some vegetables in the lower left corner with the legend, “la forme des sitroules.” His 1613 book, Les voyages dv sievr de Champlain Xaintongeois … (facsimile online at the BNF and text within his collected works), mentions them a number of times, such as (p. 77 or here):

Ceux que nous auions enuoyés deuers eux, nous apporterent de petites citrouilles de la groſſeur du poing, que nous mangeaſmes en ſallade comme coucombres, qui ſont treſbonnes;

Those whom we had sent to them brought us some little squashes as big as the fist, which we ate as a salad, like cucumbers, and which we found very good. (tr. Otis)

The semantic space of squash, gourd and melon, based on appearance and use, which requires exceptions like ornamental squash, edible gourd or bitter melon, took some time to settle down. The etymologies are also complex and connected in ways that might not be immediately apparent. Latin cucurbita is related to Sanskrit चिर्भट cirbhaṭa 'a kind of cucumber' and चिर्भिटा cirbhiṭā 'a kind of gourd'. The English cucurbit initially only meant the gourd-shaped lower part of an alembic; the vegetable sense is much later. The Old English form, like the Old High German kurbiz, whence German Kürbis, was cyrfæt. Latin pepo 'melon' (at least in the Vulgate), is from Greek πέπων, short for πέπων σίκυος 'ripe melon', from the same source as πέσσω 'cook', which is from the same root as Latin coquere, whence English cook. Zucchini is traditionally used as a plural or collective noun, with squash (not squashes, which means more than one variety of squash, not more than one item) or piece supplying something countable when necessary, though there are a couple hundred thousand Google hits for "zucchinis," so that may be changing. It was sufficiently uncommon in the first half of the 20th century that the 1989 revision of the OED is able to get away with slipping in a line from Thomas Pynchon's 1966 The Crying of Lot 49 where Oedipa is in the Yoyodyne Cafeteria for the stockholders' meeting as an quotation. The Italian singular zucchino is the diminutive of zucca 'gourd', which might be from Latin cucutia like cucuzza and cucuzzi are. Cucutia is presumably related to cucurbita and cucumis somehow. Or zucca might be from Greek σικύα 'bottle gourd', related to σίκυος 'melon'. French courgette is the diminutive of courge, from Old French courde, from cucurbita; courde also giving English gourd. Pumpkin is a diminutive of pompion, from pepon, from the same pepo. Melon is from Latin melo, short for melopepo, from Greek μηλοπέπων 'melon', literally 'gourd-apple', from μῆλον 'apple' (the usual choice of unknown fruits and vegetables) and πέπων. It is not clear what metaphor led to marrow being applied to vegetables, but the first such use was marrowfat peas; vegetable marrow referred to avocados well into the 19th century before the squash sense took over. Simlin or cymling is from simnel, because of the resemblance to the scalloped Lenten cakes; this is from Latin simila 'flour', whence also semolina.

The earliest quotation for vegetable spaghetti from the OED is from the The Times [London], Nov. 2, 1973 (22/8):

If vegetable spaghetti is as tasteless as marrow, which I believe it is, no self-respecting British housewife would buy it at any price.

This is actually the end of a series of somewhat connected mentions in the paper that fall, starting on Aug. 31, where it is introduced as an “American vegetable” that can be ordered by post from a place that specializes in snails and frog legs; then on Sep. 7, it tells where you can order seeds to grow your own; then on Oct. 16, it tells of a Roger Whipp, who planted 12 acres but failed to see any interest in the produce as a result of “the conservatism of the British housewife”; in reply to which there is a letter on 26 Oct. complaining that in fact no greengrocers seemed interested in stocking them; and then the Nov. 2 letter quoted by the OED. All of which is not even the earliest occurrence in The Times: it gets a mention in the Jan. 23, 1971 Gardening column (18/8):

Some friends rave about “vegetable spaghetti” which is marrow-like vegetable that boil, peel off the skin and out comes a kind of spaghetti-like mass.

The earliest mention of spaghetti squash in the New York Times is Oct. 17, 1976 (p. 395):

Little Chief Farm Stands in Riverhead and Aquebogue have it, the Green Thumb in Water Mill has it, Horley's in Centerport has it, Van Sise Farms in Woodbury is trying to stock it, but at most of the other farm stands and markets about the Island, they never heard of it. “It” is spaghetti squash.

Craig Claiborne's Jan. 9, 1978 De Gustibus column is about “Vegetable Pasta” (p. A24):

It is said that most trends in food in America begin on the East Coast and go west to California. An exception is a distinct novelty that has appeared over the past three or four years at greengrocers.

It is a curious vegetable that goes by the name of a spaghetti squash; …

… the botanical name is cucurbita ficifolia …

We telephoned the produce company, the Eckel company in Salinas, Calif., and Frank Eckel told us that the squash had been developed some years ago in Japan. … [H]e predicted that it might take five to 10 years before it becomes a commonplace vegetable.

Then spaghetti squash is the answer to one of the quiz questions for that week. I will try to deal with the C. ficifolia vs. C. pepo problem in a bit. It is hard to tell from the grainy scan of the black and white photo, but it might be the latter; the previous mention above definitely was.

By the following year, in a Feb. 25, 1979 piece titled “Dubious Delicacies for the Vegetable Patch” (p. D44), it is already, “… the well known Spaghetti Squash …” Again Claiborne, in a Jan. 21, 1981 column bemoaning the lack of an OED equivalent for food (the 2000 Cambridge History I mentioned above may come close) and reviewing some contenders from back then, says (p. C3), “… there is no mention of spaghetti squash, which abounds in American markets today.”

Google Books offers similar hints. From Historical Geography of Crop Plants: A Select Roster, 1993, by Jonathan Deininger Sauer (p. 48):

A new zucchini cultivar developed in the Far East is known as vegetable spaghetti. In the 1980s, it has become popular in North America.

From Oriental Vegetables: The Complete Guide for the Gardening Cook, 1991, by Joy Larkcom (p. 81):

Vegetable spaghetti is probably Chinese in origin. It is widely grown in China, and in recent years has become very popular in the West.

Attempting to use Google Books' date ranges to find earlier mentions is a complete failure. For instance, a search for the first half of the century is nothing but false hits. Even though they are all snippet views, by searching for "superintendent of documents" or "copyright", it is clear that these publications are much later. The particularly promising 1923 mention of an AAS Vegetable Award winning vegetable spaghetti squash “Trivoli” F1 turns out to be really be called “Tivoli” and to be the winner from 1991.

A Produce Reference Guide to Fruits and Vegetables from Around the World: Nature's Harvest, 1997, by Donald D. Heaton credits (p. 207) Frieda Caplan of Frieda's Finest with leading the introduction to America. This claim also appears in the Inc. Magazine profile and a 2006 company press release, which dates that introduction to 1975.

A Frieda's first that might hold up to scrutiny is giving the name kiwi to kiwifruit in the 1960s. When introduced to New Zealand, it was known as Chinese gooseberry. In Chinese, it is traditionally known as 獼猴桃 mi2hou2tao2 'macaque monkey peach', though there is a new name 奇異果 qi2yi4 guo3 'strange fruit' because it sounds like kiwi. Oddly enough, Chinese gooseberry was also a name for carambola or star fruit, which is 楊桃 yang2tao2 'poplar peach'. In Thai 'starfruit' is มะเฟือง má-feuang and 'kiwi' is just กีวี gee-wee — they are on a bilingual fruit poster for Thai schoolchildren that we have in our larder. In addition to giving some regional branding, kiwi fruit probably helped to clear up the confusion. A dissenter to Frieda's priority is Exotic Fruits and Vegetables by Jane Grigson, which says (p. 18) that the first shipment abroad to London in 1953 already had the new name. The earliest quotation given by the OED is from the New York Times Aug. 13, 1966 (p. 30):

Chinese gooseberries, also known as kiwi fruit, are in metropolitan markets for the third season in increased quantities.

Since spaghetti squash was first introduced by farm stands and home growers, another source of information is heirloom seed catalogs.

  • Nichols Garden Nursery: “Introduced by Sakata Seed Company in 1934.”
  • Fedco Seeds: “First commercialized by Sakata in Japan in 1934 and brought to the States by Burpee two years later.”
  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: “This is the popular squash with stringy flesh that is used like spaghetti. Introduced by Sakata Seed Co. of Japan, in 1934. May have originated in China.”
  • Agrestal: “This is another interesting variety developed by Prof. E. M. Meader at the University of New Hampshire.”
  • Taylor's Guide to Heirloom Vegetables: “1890s.”
  • The Cottage Gardener: “1890’s.”
  • Skyfire Garden Seeds: “From Manchuria in 1890.”
  • Revolution Seeds: “As near as I can tell this was the original spaghetti squash, originating in Manchuria in 1890 and coming to the notice of American growers through its introduction in Japan in 1934.

A quick check on eBay finds a copy of the 1942 Burpee catalog for not too much. And indeed, there it is (p. 151):

Pick a well-ripened squash and cook it whole, without cutting or skinning, for 20 minutes in boiling water. Take it out of the pot, cut open, and you will find a mass of spaghetti-like pulp which is very tasty when seasoned.

I assumed the 1936 catalog would have a larger introductory blurb. But after finally tracking down a copy, it's actually smaller (p. 128) and lacks the artwork.

Another source of information is smaller circulation publications, such as in, to which one of the local libraries offers access. There are, of course, some false hits from display ads when spaghetti and squash occur near one another. Here are some interesting results:

Nov. 23, 1936. Fresno, Calif. The Fresno Bee. p. 3-D:

Kerman Flower Show

C. H. Wootten, first on squash and spaghetti squash;

Aug. 4, 1942. Frederick, Md. The News. p. 2:

Vegetable Spaghetti Is Tried In County

In these days of substitutes and synthetics it is not surprising that truck growers have something new to offer, too. One of the unusual vegetables which has been tried in a few local gardens it vegetable spaghetti. Roger H. Geisbert, of near Urbana, brought to The News-Post office a one specimen of this unusual type of squash. It was shaped somewhat like a watermelon and was creamy white in color. It was a foot in length and weighed seven pounds.

To prepare for the table, you boil the whole squash for about 30 minutes and then cut open, remove the center core and season with salt and butter the flesh that appears as tightly wound spaghetti-like threads or strings.

A member of The News-Post staff has some of the vines in his “Victory” garden and he was disappointed that some of the early pickings did not show up any spaghetti after cooking. But according to Mr. Geisbert's experience the vegetable spaghetti was not left on the vine long enough to fully mature. However, the early plucked fruits cooked up like cymlings and were very tasty.

As a matter of fact, vegetable spaghetti must be a variety of summer squash, a newly developed vine of the genus Cucurbita, which is the gourd or cucumber family.

May 18, 1944. Reno, Nev. Nevada State Journal. p. 6:

Squash Gives Garden Variety

Vegetable spaghetti is a curiosity of the vegetable world, yet one having real value. The vining plants are vigorous and set fruits just as do other squashes. This squash, or vegetable spaghetti, is a cream white in color and grows from eight to 10 inches long and four to five inches in diameter. It is a “good keeper” and can be stored for over-winter use.

Vegetable spaghetti is prepared by picking a well-ripened squash and boiling it whole for 30 minutes. Then cut it open, remove the center core, season the mass of spaghetti-like pulp with salt, pepper and butter and replace in the oven just long enough for the “spaghetti” to brown.

The Butternut squash is a new type of squash producing a fruit aobut [sic] 12 inches long.

Aug. 29, 1944. Portsmouth, N.H. The Portsmouth, N.H., Herald. p. 2:

A benefit flower show and fair held by the Eliot Garden club last week in the South Eliot Methodist church and vestry enables the club to spend nearly $100 for their war time activities.

In the vegetable class firsts were awarded to Mrs. Marston for beets and onions; Miss Elsie Catlin for carrots and beets; Mrs. John McPherson for Boston summer squash; Mrs. Toennesen for summer squash, green squash and carrots; Mrs. Leroy Littlefield for spaghetti squash; and Mrs. Frank Murphy for vegetable sugar cane.

Sept. 2, 1966. Walla Walla, Wash. Union-Bulletin. p. 16:

4-H Gardening

Green lima beans, pimento peppers, spaghetti squash, okra—Gay Shollenberter.

Sept. 20, 1968. Sheboygan, Wisc. Sheboygan Press. p. 16:

Vegetable spaghetti is another Oriental development not widely known in this area.

Nov. 12, 1971. San Mateo, Calif. The Times. p. 9:

Giant Squash Is Times' Plant [of the Week]

This year we grew a new novelty squash originated by Sakata of Japan, called “Spaghetti Squash.” The seed came with the directions for cooking on the package, the vine clambered over everything else we had in the bed. The fruits were like a banana squash but not as long and the average weight of each squash was 5 pounds. The color, when ripe, also resembled the banana squash but there the similarity ended. The directions called for cooking the squash whole for 20 minutes. We found that many more minutes were needed before it was tender enough to pierce with a fork. When tender it was cut open, the seeds removed and the flesh scraped out. This edible portion fell out like drained spaghetti. We enjoyed it with butter, salt and pepper. Seeds of this squash will be in the seed racks next spring.

It is interesting that a show is already featuring a spaghetti squash prize the first year that Burpee introduced the Sakata seed. I suppose it might be that the company sponsored or otherwise promoted it in that way. Or perhaps that indicates an alternate source already in 1936.

In Japanese, spaghetti squash is 金糸瓜 kinshi uri 'gold thread melon' or 素麺南瓜 sōmen kabocha just like in European languages, though I don't think it is usually prepared in imitation of noodles. The Sakata company was founded in 1913 by Takeo Sakata (坂田武雄). Its web site does not mention spaghetti squash except in a list of winning varieties from its research efforts (Japanese English), which includes the 1991 AAS winner Tivoli referred to above.

In Chinese, spaghetti squash is 魚翅瓜 yu2 chi4 gua1 (also transliterated yee chee kuah) 'shark fin melon'. It is prepared in a soup somewhat like a veggie shark fin soup. It is also known as 金丝瓜 jin1 si1 gua1 'gold thread melon', like in Japan; or 麵條瓜 mian4 tiao2 gua1 'spaghetti squash'. I believe spaghetti is commonly known as 意粉 yi4 fen3 'Italian pasta' in Mandarin and 意面 yi3 min6 'Italian noodles' in Cantonese.

魚翅瓜 yu2 chi4 gua1 is also the name of Cucurbita ficifolia or chilacayote (from the Nahuatl tzilacayohtli 'smooth gourd'), which can be prepared similarly in soup. This is the botanical name Claiborne gave above, though I am uncertain from the photo whether that is what he really had — with a less artistic angle, darker, rounder and spotted would be clear. In South America, it is typically used to make jam. But there are a few places that give Spanish alcayota or Portuguese gila or chila (from chila-caiota) as translations for 'spaghetti squash'. This abstract is of an article that says that it was common in China in 1854 as fodder. Although it was introduced to Europe as courge de siam, I cannot find a Thai name for it in lists of agricultural products.

I have not been able to locate any further sources on its history in China. What I am able to find is about its economics or how to prepare soup or other dishes. There is even a journal 中国瓜菜 China Cucurbits and Vegetables, but I do not see any historical abstracts. A snippet of a much older abstract, 4982. Practical horticulture. (Translated from the Japanese by CHANG, C. C.) Journal of the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce Republic of China (in Chinese) 118: 1-14; 119: 1-8. 1925. promises a list of Chinese and Japanese squash synonyms from the early 20th century, but I do not have much chance of finding that journal.

Noodles are an important, while not fundamental, part of Chinese cuisine. The oldest noodles in the world were recently discovered by archeologists in China. Macaroni, in the sense of dried pasta made from durum wheat, was probably invented by the Arabs. It is still possible to find places on the web where someone believes that Marco Polo brought back macaroni from China (or even that he brought it to China), though it seems there are an even greater number of sites devoted to debunking this myth. Marco Polo's Travels was one of the most popular works before printing. It was almost immediately translated into many languages, so though the original dictation to Rustichello does not survive, there are a fair number of early manuscripts. An early printed version is in Giovanni Battista Ramusio's work, Navigationi et Viaggi (online here); it includes portions that are not found elsewhere. The earliest manuscript is BNF MS Tr. 1116, titled Le divisament dou monde; it is written in a language that Luigi Foscolo Benedetto describes as, “il francese fortemente mescidato di vocaboli e di forme italiane” 'French strongly mixed with Italian vocabulary and forms'. As far as I can tell, it is not online as text or facsimile. But there is a fairly recent volume in most libraries containing it together with an early Tuscan version, titled Il Milione. This latter text (or something close) is also online here, here and here. A clear statement of what Marco Polo found of Chinese pasta is from Ramusio:

Non usano pane queste genti, ma solamente cuocono queste tre sorti di biade col latte, overo carni, e mangiano quelle; e il frumento appresso di loro non moltiplica cosí, ma quello che ricogliono mangiano solamente in lasagne e altre vivande di pasta. (Lib. 2 Cap. 20.)

Those nations use no bread, but only boil those kinds of grain with milk or meat for their victual. Their wheat, indeed, does not render so much, but this they use only to make vermicelli [sic], and pastes of that description. (tr. Yule)

On the other hand, Marco Polo did encounter a new food, a vegetable substitute for flour, and so somewhat related to this post, namely sago.

Il ne ont forment, ne autre bles; mes menuient ris et lat; il ont vin des arbres, de celz que je voç contai desovre. E si voç di un autre couse que bien fait a conter por mervoille: sachiés que en ceste provence ont farine d'arbres, e voç dirai comant il ont. Sachiés que il ont une mainere d'arbres que mout sont groses e grant, e cesti arbres sunt tuit plein dedens de farine: que sachiés que cesti arbres ont mout soutil escorces e tuit dedens est farine. Et ne font meint me[n]gier de paste que mout sunt buen a mangier, car je voç di que nos meesme les provanmes aseç, car nos en menuiames plusors foies. (Div. CLXX)

No ànno grano, ma manucano riso; vino ànno degli àlbori ch'abiamo detto di sopra. Qui à una grande maraviglia, che ci àn farina d'àlbori, che sono àlbori grossi e ànno la buccia sottile, e sono tutti pieni dentro di farina; e di quella farin[a] si fa molti mangiar di pasta e buoni, ed io più volte ne mangiai. (Mil. 166)

The people have no wheat, but have rice which they eat with milk and flesh. They also have wine from trees such as I told you of. And I will tell you another great marvel. They have a kind of trees that produce flour, and excellent flour it is for food. These trees are very tall and thick, but have a very thin bark, and inside the bark they are crammed with flour. And I tell you that Messer Marco Polo, who witnessed all this, related how he and his party did sundry times partake of this flour made into bread, and found it excellent. (tr. Yule)

With just a little searching, versions of this text can be found online in 16th century French here and here; manuscript 14th century French; more modern French; Latin and Czech; different English; and somewhat different 13th century Italian. Ramusio adds a more detailed description of how the flour is made, concluding:

… e la farina purgata e mondata che rimane s'adopra, e si fanno di quella lasagne e diverse vivande di pasta, … (Lib. 3 Cap. 16.)

… and the cleaned flour that remains is taken and made into pasta in strips and other forms.  (tr. Yule)

The book Manchuria: Its People, Resources and Recent History by Alexander Hosie, from 1904, mentions squash (p. 196):

They likewise include many forms and varieties of the Cucurbitaceæ melon, pumpkin, squash, vegetable marrow, cucumber and gourd—of which the following are the native names: Hsiang Kua, Wo Kua, Tung Kua (Benincasa cerifera, Savi), Ssŭ Kua (Luffa petola, Ser.), Huang Kua (Cucumis sativa, L.), Hsi Kua, Yü Kua, Lai Kua, Sao Kua, Sai Kua, Hu tzŭ and Hu lu (gourd—Langenaria [sic] vulgaris, Ser.).

I guess these are 香瓜 xiang1gua1 'muskmelon', 倭瓜 wo1gua1 'some kind of melon', 冬瓜 dong1gua1 'wax gourd', 絲瓜 si1gua1 'loofah', 黃瓜 huang2gua1 'cucumber', 西瓜 xi1gua1 'watermelon', 玉瓜 yu4gua1 'jade melon', 癩瓜 lai4gua1 'bitter melon', 騷瓜 sao1gua1 ?, 菜瓜 cai4gua1 'cucumber', 葫子hu2zi0 / 葫蘆 hu2lu2 'bottle gourd'.

In his book China and the Chinese, Herbert Allen Giles (of Wade-Giles) proposes what seem to me like unlikely etymologies (p. 134 or online):

Similarly, the Chinese word for “radish,” 蘿蔔 lo po [mentioned in an earlier post], also of foreign origin, is no doubt a corruption of ῥάφη, it being of course well known that the Chinese cannot pronounce an initial r.

There is one term, especially, in Chinese which at once carries conviction as to its Greek origin. This is the term for watermelon. The two Chinese characters chosen to represent the sound mean “Western gourd,” i.e. the gourd which came from the West. Some Chinese say, on no authority in particular, that it was introduced by the Kitan Tartars; others say that it was introduced by the first Emperor of the so-called Golden Tartars. But the Chinese term is still pronounced si kua [西瓜], which is absolutely identical with the Greek word σικύα, of which Liddell and Scott say, “perhaps the melon.” For these three words it would now scarcely be rash to substitute “the watermelon.”

He is quoting the smaller Liddell Scott; the larger says, “bottle-gourd, Lagenaria vulgaris.”

The orangetti variety of spaghetti squash was developed at the Newe Ya’ar Experiment Station in Israel in 1986 by Harry S. Paris. It is included in this study with other varieties. Paris is the author of a couple papers on spaghetti squash botany and of the even more interesting 1989 paper, “Historical Records, Origins and Developments of the Edible Cultivar Groups of Cucurbita pepo (Cucurbitaceae).” Economic Botany, 43(4): 423-443., for which a PDF reprint is quite reasonably priced at $7. The paper is in some ways an update to Sturtevant's entry from seventy years before. As to spaghetti squash, he says (p. 439-440):

Some additional developments in C. pepo will probably result from unpredictable, and seemingly capricious, consumer desires. A case in point is the ‘Vegetable Spaghetti’ cultivar, a member of the vegetable marrow group. This unusual cultivar has been in commerce in North America since 1936, when it was introduced by the Burpee Seed Co., and it probably originated in the Far East (T. C. Torrey, pers. comm.). It suddenly gained a surge of popularity in North America around 1980. For 1986, a hybrid cultivar developed in Israel from ‘Vegetable Spaghetti’ was released (Paris et al. 1985). This new cultivar, named ‘Orangetti’, has semi-bush habit, intense orange fruit rind and flesh color, and a 15-fold increase in the carotene content of the flesh. Should this cultivar become popular, others like it can be expected to be developed.

The correspondent mentioned is Theodore Torrey, Burpee's director of vegtable research.

The variety they had at Whole Foods the other day, which we had with a mushroom sauce, was from Monty Farms, S.A., La Paz, Honduras. It does not seem to be any particular named hybrid and is just identified by its PLU #4776.

A little digging around in used bookstores turns up this, The Vegetable Spaghetti Cookbook, Feb. 1982, by Derek Fell, who was executive director of AAS seed trials in 1974 when he met Takeo Sakata and was responsible for introducing Sakata's award-wining seed varieties to America. It says (p. 7):

Mr. Sakata and his staff of plant breeders have found China to be a rich source of new vegetables, and after finding Vegetable Spaghetti there decided to produce an improved strain in commercial quantities and offer it worldwide through their wholesale seed division in 1934.

At first the new vegetable was ignored and although a few seed companies in the USA tested it, none found it sufficiently exciting to offer it to home gardeners. Mr. Sakata was bewildered by the lack of interest, and after many years of struggling to gain acceptance for it, he reintroduced it about 1960.

A progressive European seed company featured the vegetable in their mail order seed catalog about 1964 and promoted it widely through releases and advertising as a low calorie substitute for pasta spaghetti. Sales were dramatic, and several American seed houses, intrigued by the success of Vegetable Spaghetti in Europe, listed it in their own mail order seed catalogs.

According to Jane Grigson (p. 535), that 1964 seed catalog was Thompson and Morgan's.

Although there are still some problems, it is possible to piece together an outline of a timeline:

  • 7000 BCE: Cucurbita pepo remains from Oaxaxa, Mexico.
  • 3000 BCE: C. ficifolia remains from Huaca Prieta, Peru.
  • 2000 BCE: Millet noodle remains from Lajia, China.
  • Before 13th century: dried pasta from durum wheat developed by the Arabs or someone in the Mediterranean.
  • 1274: Marco Polo embarks for Asia, where he discovers that they use noodles too.
  • 1492: Columbus journeys to America, beginning dissemination of New World plants.
  • 1740: First licensed pasta factory in Italy.
  • 1789: Thomas Jefferson has his secretary William Short go to Naples to secure a “maccaroni mould,” which be brings to America. He also prepares some notes on pasta machines.
  • 1824: First industrial pasta factory in Italy.
  • 1824: C. ficifolia introduced to cultivation in Europe as C. melanosperma.
  • 1848: First pasta factory in America.
  • 1854: C. ficifolia common in China as fodder.
  • Late 19th century: shark fin melon soup.
  • 1890s: A stringy strain of C. pepo developed in Manchuria, where is may be easier to grow than C. ficifolia or something like that.
  • 1913: Sakata Seed Corp. founded.
  • Early 20th century: Italian immigrants make spaghetti an American staple.
  • 1934: Sakata breeders find Vegetable Spaghetti in China and develop it commercially.
  • 1936: Burpee introduces Vegetable Spaghetti in the USA.
  • World War II: wartime disruptions make a home-grown substitute for spaghetti desirable.
  • 1950s: Post-war prosperity and the Marshall Plan balance with Europe return real spaghetti.
  • 1960s: Sakata reintroduces Vegetable Spaghetti.
  • 1962: Frieda's Finest founded.
  • 1964: Thompson and Morgan seed catalog features Vegetable Spaghetti.
  • 1970s: Mainstream integration of counterculture creates demand for new fruits and vegetables.
  • 1975: Frieda's begins promoting Spaghetti Squash.
  • 1986: Orangetti variety developed in Israel.
  • 1991: Sakata Tivoli variety wins AAS award.
  • 1990s: Globalization and transportation revolution make squash readily available throughout North America all year round.
  • 1995: Hasta La Pasta introduced by Burpee / Seedway.
  • 1999: Hi-beta Gold developed by Jim Waltrip / Seminis Garden.
  • 2001: Small Wonder (single serving size) developed by Hollar Seeds.


KCinDC said...

Is the first syllable of askútasquash related to the (questionable) "eaters of raw flesh" etymology of Eskimo?

Is chilacayote connected to chayote?

Pike is alive and well in the names of various roads here in the Washington, DC, area (Columbia Pike, Rockville Pike, Leesburg Pike) as well as in the phrase come down the pike.

MMcM said...

Eskimo: Yes, indeed. Good suggestion. I added a link to Trumbull's larger Natick Dictionary where you can see the squash morphology more clearly and some links to the Eskimo debate, which still doesn't seem completely settled.

chilacayote: Karttunen agrees with that French online Nahuatl dictionary in deriving chilacayohtli from āyohtli and leaving chayohtli separate. It is odd that two so similar words relate to similar vegetables.

Pike: We've got our Mass Pike up here as well. I suppose pike for turnpike does occur most places where they actually have turnpikes. So maybe the concept and not the word is regional.

John Emerson said...

Off topic, but if you haven't seen this before:

"Carrots were originally purple or red, with a thin root. The species did not turn orange until the 1500's when Dutch agricultural scientists and growers used a mutant yellow carrot seed from North Africa to develop a carrot in the colour of the House of Orange, the Dutch Royal Family. In an attempt to "nationalize" the country's favourite vegetable they began experiments on improving the pale yellow versions by cross breeding them with red varieties. These varieties contain beta carotene to produce orange-coloured roots This was developed to become the dominant species across the world - wonderful, sweet orange.

It is said, (without much historical reference) that the orange carrot was developed in Holland as a tribute to William I of Orange during the Dutch fight for independence from Spain in the 16th century. The orange carrot, not only had a better taste but also had beta carotene making it healthier, and so all other carrots stopped being planted.

By the 1700s Holland was considered the leading country in carrot breeding and today's "modern" orange version is directly descended from the Dutch-bred carrots of this time. Successive hybridization intensified the widely recognized "orange" colour of today. This is the most commonly grown species today."

There's much more:

Anonymous said...

You commit an error. I suggest it to discuss.

MMcM said...

Anonymous, do go on.

I'm sure I committed lots of errors. Feel free to discuss here.

Rose Marie Nichols McGee said...

Enjoyed your squash article. I prefer Spaghetti squash with soy sauce and a touch of dark sesame oil, maybe a little cilantro which are more Chinese seasonings. Also I think Italians quickly took to the squashes of the western hemisphere because they had already built a cooking tradition around cucuzzi.

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

This was just awesome! I'm researching a short article on squash/pumpkin for a Japanese magazine (in English), and found this. Many thanks for a terrific piece that clarified many of the questions I had about the history of this particular squash. Now, if you just knew something about the other varieties I'm listing! Many thanks.

Unknown said...

WOW! What a fabulous article!! Our family (USA) came to know and love the spaghetti squash last year, and we've incorporated it into much of our Italian cooking, however I'd LOVE to try it with more traditional Chinese seasonings.

Your research and references are impeccable and I can tell the amount of time you've put into ensuring your information is both accurate and thought out. Thank you so very much for the history of this fabulous vegetable!

The Elkbergs said...

Wow! We wanted to dig into the (theoretical) Asian history of spaghetti squash to find some more ways to cook the stuff that comes from our CSA. You gave us everything we could want, and so much more! As word geeks, the insane pursuit of both "spaghetti" and "squash" was over the top delightful. The time line at the end was perfect. Thank you!

kts said...

Time marches on: the Internet Archive now provides a scan of Eliot's Massachusett Bible. And Eliot's double-o ligature was added to Unicode in version 5.1 (2008): U+A74F LATIN SMALL LETTER OO. So we can now write ꝏ instead of an infinity sign.