When Beckham Sharpe and his family transitioned from growing tobacco to growing produce on their Kentucky farm more than a decade ago, they did a brisk business each fall in pumpkins and giant crookneck gourds called cushaws, which many people use as seasonal decorations in their yards and gardens used porches.
But as Sharpe soon realized, some of his customers — particularly those “from the older generation, somewhere in their 75s and 90s,” he says while he filled orders for half-bushel cases of fruit and veg — weren’t just Cushaws buy for the show.
They bought them to eat, especially as a key ingredient in casseroles and pies at this time of year.
“They put brown sugar, butter and cinnamon on top,” says Sharpe. “I have a great aunt who does this for us every year.”
It turns out that the older generation are the custodians of the wisdom about the old-fashioned Kentucky delicacy known as cushaw, which when steamed or baked and mashed, has a color and texture similar to (but lighter than) pumpkins Has.
“Cushaws were the only squash most farmers in Kentucky grew a hundred years ago, when I was a kid,” jokes Georgia Green Stamper of Lexington, who grew up on an Owen County farm and is the author of the collection of essays Butter in the Morning: Pieces of a Kentucky Life. “My mother – and most country cooks in my experience – removed the rind and gently braised the offal. Mom then drained it and poured the mushy cooked consistency into a casserole dish and generously covered it with sugar and butter, cinnamon etc and baked until bubbly and lightly brown on top.
While not as familiar on holiday tables as they once were, cushaws are still grown and consumed on Kentucky farms and are available at farmers’ markets and some grocery stores each fall and early winter.
At Dyer Farm in Sharpsburg, Kentucky, for example, Laura and Sid Dyer sometimes plant cushaws between rows of corn. “It saves space in the field and the corn shades them so they don’t burn,” says Laura Dyer, who sells cushaws at farmers markets in Lexington. “I like to add grated cushaw to my cake batter, it makes the cake moist.”
Cushaws perhaps make their greatest impression in a cake.
Bake Cushaw Pie
“It’s like pumpkin pie but better,” says Lexington cookbook author Barbara Harper-Bach, 82, whose “The Pure Kentucky Pie Clinic” includes a recipe for Cushaw Pie. “In the 1970s, when I was raising kids, someone brought me a cushaw and I was like, what the hell is that? the? I had to go to the library to research it. I had the pie made and told my kids it was a pumpkin pie because I didn’t think they would eat anything called cushaw. And they said it was the best pumpkin pie they had ever eaten. And that is exactly why we still do it today.”
To prepare the pie, Harper-Bach scrubbed a medium-yellow cushaw from Sharpe’s Farm — at his suggestion, I chose the 12-pound cushaw with a thicker neck, where most of the meat is — with a vegetable brush. She kept the rind, cut the cushaw into large chunks, scooped out the seeds (which can be saved and replanted next season), then fried the cushaw “meat,” as she calls it, on a pan with a drizzle of olive oil Sheet pan for about 90 minutes at 350 degrees.
She then scooped the soft pulp straight into a food processor, pureed it, then strained it into a metal colander to drain. It released a surprising amount of moisture into a bowl in the fridge overnight — so much moisture she had to empty the bowl twice.
“The secret to making the puree is that you have to strain it overnight,” says Harper-Bach. “There’s a lot of water in there, so your cake will be watery if you don’t strain it. I googled a bunch of cushaw cake recipes and none of them mentioned straining them overnight. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have the concentrated flavor you’re looking for.”
The process of making a good Cushaw cake from scratch is time-consuming, she admits. “Every time you cook from scratch, it’s a little more time-consuming than just buying it in a can or whatever,” she says. “But I’ve spent years trying to teach people to cook from scratch because it saves so much money and the results are so much better. And the proof is in the pudding.”
And so it was. Harper-Bach’s Cushaw Pie, modified slightly from her Pure Kentucky Pie Clinic recipe — she used half and half instead of heavy cream and halved the amount of white sugar — was far less dense and slightly sweeter than traditional pumpkin pie. The custard filling was light golden brown sprinkled with spices – like a pumpkin pie but better.
“It’s not as orange as pumpkin pie, but it’s enough to fool young people,” says Harper-Bach, laughing as she serves a slice. “You don’t even need whipped cream or eggnog ice cream, which is what I suggest in the cookbook. It’s just as damn good as it is.”