I spent a good chunk of time earlier this year developing menus for two different hearth cooking classes at The Israel Crane House (including one that never materialized…ahh, well, so it goes). It’s always an interesting journey when I search for dishes that might have made up a typical mid-day meal at the Crane family table. I usually begin by making a general list of what I’d like to include, along with specific dishes and cooking techniques that I think class participants might like to try. I consider what foods would’ve been in season at the time, and what was likely available to a family such as the Cranes, who lived so close (relatively!) to Manhattan. I often simply skim the table of contents and indexes of assorted historic cookbooks for ideas. Frequently, I’ll open one at random and just start reading, which can be fascinating, as I never know what I’ll find! If nothing else, creating menus for these classes is always a fascinating and educational experience. And so, my recent search for receipts (recipes) followed this same basic path. However, as I went along my merry way, I suddenly discovered some shocking, good-golly-miss-molly, eye poppin’ and jaw-droppin’ information. As I perused the vegetable section of the Index in Mrs. Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife (1839), I came upon these two little words:
“Wow!” I thought. “Is this another, a second, receipt for the dish that I know so well and have made multiple times? If so, how cool is that?! I’ve gotta check this out.” You see, there’s a “Potato Pumpkin” in The Virginia Housewife (1824), by Mary Randolph. I was first introduced to it during the 18th Century Historic Foodways Conference back in 2009 at Colonial Williamsburg. The Historic Foodways folks there had made one that played a major role in various displays and “live” presentations. It was a most unique dish, and I was just fascinated with it. I vowed then and there to try it when I got home. And, indeed I did, both for use at the Crane House and at my own celebratory meals. Many of my fellow hearth cooks have prepared it, as well, and I’ve seen a wide range of photos posted online that showcase their efforts. Of course, I’ve also shown off my handiwork here on my blog. One made for use at the Crane House: and another, eaten at home: And although I’d shared Randolph’s receipt for “Potato Pumpkin” often, I admit I’d never paid too much attention to the specifics contained therein. I mean, I’d read it and re-read it, and there was that one puzzling sentence, but, golly, I’d seen it, and heard its preparation discussed, at Colonial Williamsburg, and thus had a clear idea of what it was and how it went together. Certainly, the foodways folks at CW must’ve known what they were doing and what was up and what was correct, yes? There was no need to question their efforts! So, in accordance with everything that I’d witnessed, making a “Potato Pumpkin” appeared to simply involve cutting off the top of a regular (pie or sugar) pumpkin, paring and gutting it, filling the cavity with forcemeat (which typically consists of sausage or other meat mixed with herbs, bread crumbs, and other ingredients), baking it, and then, finally, eating the entire thing. Yeah, well…no! There’s one part of those basic instructions that’s completely wrong! How do I know? Well, remember when I stated previously that I’d discovered another “Potato Pumpkin” receipt in The Kentucky Housewife? Turns out, not only is it NOT the same as Randolph’s (HUZZAH! no stealing, er, “borrowing” here!), but it’s also much, MUCH different. Here’s what I found in Mrs. Bryan’s book:
POTATO PUMPKIN. Potato pumpkin when large and ripe, is very good, tasting much like the sweet potato, and can be kept well through the winter, put up in a dry place, and covered securely with fodder or shucks. They may be dressed by the various receipts I have just given for winter squash.
A-HA!!! It’s a squash! A specific squash. And it’s a food item unto itself, one that’s wholly distinct and separate from a regular pumpkin. And it’s called a “POTATO pumpkin” because it TASTES like a SWEET POTATO. [emphasis mine] Good golly, miss molly. After reading this, I turned again to the receipt in Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife:
POTATO PUMPKIN. Get one of a good colour, and seven or eight inches in diameter; cut a piece off the top, take out all the seeds, wash and wipe the cavity, pare the rind off, and fill the hollow with good forcemeat—put the top on, and set it in a deep pan, to protect the sides; bake it in a moderate oven, put it carefully in the dish without breaking, and it will look like a handsome mould. Another way of cooking potato pumpkin is to cut it in slices, pare off the rind, and make a puree as directed for turnips.
“Get one of a good colour,” as in one of the specific vegetables that’re known as potato pumpkins. And, again, NOT a REGULAR pumpkin! Then that last line, which greatly puzzled me: “another way of cooking potato pumpkin….” Well, seeing as it’s referring to a specific type of squash, cutting IT into slices, cooking and making IT into “a puree as directed for turnips,” I understand better now. But golly, I’d always wondered how you were supposed to cut a regular ol’ pumpkin filled with forcemeat into slices and then puree them all together. It just didn’t make any sense! Now, though, it does. HUZZAH! Then, as I was reading these two different receipts, I suddenly recalled seeing the words “potato pumpkin” in another section of my facsimile of Randolph’s 1824 book. Ahhh, yes, it was in the “Historical Glossary”! So I looked, and sure enough, there it says, in part:
POTATO PUMPKIN—I take this to be calabaza or West Indian pumpkin. In a letter to Samuel Vaughn, Jr., in 1790, Jefferson speaks of the potatoe-pumpkin, calling it thus ‘on account of the extreme resemblance of its taste to that of the sweet-potatoe’…
Good golly. Wow, WOW, WOW! One good part of all this is we may FINALLY be rid of that constantly-asked and annoying, but unanswerable question, “Why is the dish called a potato pumpkin, when there’s no potato in it?!” I don’t know about anyone else, but it sure made me uncomfortable. There I’d be, putting it all together with relative ease, and yet I couldn’t offer up an explanation for the name of it. THAT didn’t make any sense, either! Of course, after this major discovery, I wanted to know more and to get as much information as I could about this squash called a potato pumpkin. So, first I turned to my facsimile of Noah Webster’s 1828 edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language. Nothing was given for potato pumpkin, but under “Calabash,” I found:
[Sp. calabaza, a pumpkin….] (In case you’re wondering, “Sp.” is the abbreviation for Spanish)
Next, I consulted that well-known source for definitions of all “odd” and unfamiliar words, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Again, there was no potato pumpkin. However, I did find:
calabaza Chiefly West Indies Known as West Indian or green pumpkin…not to be confused with pie pumpkin… (emphasis mine)
Wow. There you have it. What more need I say?! Nothing. Other than the fact that I now have LOTS of questions about the research (or lack thereof?!) done on this dish by members of the Historic Foodways staff down at Colonial Williamsburg. I mean…really?!? It’s bad enough that they insist on using a 19th century cookbook (The Virginia Housewife), one that wasn’t to be published for another half century (50 years!) after the time period the site is portraying. Golly, what’s up with that?!? Furthermore, which edition of Randolph’s are they using? Indeed, there are several, from its 1824 original to those of 1828, 1836…even 1860 (incidentally, she died in 1828). If theirs is the facsimile of the original of 1824, is it the one with notes and commentaries by the late Karen Hess? And, if yes, haven’t they ever found and READ her “Historical Glossary”?! And if they have, well, so…what? They forgot what’s in it? Or they purposely chose to ignore it? And if, indeed, they’re aware they’ve used the wrong squash, did they do so because they couldn’t find the correct one? So why haven’t they ever said as much? Substitutions occasionally must be made, for one reason or another, so why not share that bit of information? Particularly during the 2009 Conference. When all their fellow hearth cooks and food historians were present?! You know, saying something along the lines of “A potato pumpkin is a specific type of squash, but we’ve been unable to procure one, so we’re substituting a regular pumpkin”?! I mean, golly, don’t they think they’re obligated to tell us the truth?! And I’m fully aware that CW gives adapted receipts to the general public, particularly on its “History is Served” pages, but, come on, that ain’t us! We’re striving to closely follow historic receipts, too, and to make every dish as correctly as possible. Besides, being workers in the various kitchens at Colonial Williamsburg, they’re at the center of the 18th century living history world. We look to them to provide us with solid, factual information, and NOT namby-pamby “enh, we’ll just fudge it” shenanigans like this. On a personal level, I feel duped and betrayed, like I’ve been led astray and sent down the wrong path. I expected better, so it’s rather disappointing. Alas, I guess it highlights the fact that it’s best to do your own experimentation and conduct your own research. Don’t rely on anyone else, no matter who they are or where they work. It reminds me of what the woman told me as she led a group of us on a tour of CW’s Costume Design Center awhile back. She said, “Don’t copy us. We don’t always get things right.” Okay, good to know! Guess maybe that sentiment also applies to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Foodways, ay?! In any event, I’ll end here with two items I found of interest online. One is an image of a potato pumpkin, the other a video of a chef creating a potato pumpkin soup. Be sure to note the colors, texture, and shape of the squash in both. Courtesy of Wikibooks: And then check out this video for making Calabaza Soup. It offers a good idea of what a calabaza looks like, inside and out. Note especially when he peels it. The rind is much thinner than that of our everyday pumpkin. Oh, and one other thing. There’s a large Caribbean population here in NYC/Brooklyn. I’ve asked around, and I should be able to find a calabaza, a potato pumpkin, at a market somewhere! My plan is to buy one and make an actual, true “Potato Pumpkin.” When I do, I’ll be sure to post an update, complete with photos. Can’t wait! HUZZAH!!!