A triumph after a mistaken identity

When European explorers made their way to the New World, they were delighted to find, amid the unknown foods, forbidding forests and sometimes hostile native people, a familiar food growing seemingly everywhere: Melons.

But they weren't melons. They were squash.

It was Hernando de Alvarado in 1540 who spied the fruit—yes, fruit—in the American Southwest, according to "Food," by Waverley Root, and misreported the find. Maybe they bore a family resemblance, because squash and melon hail from the same botanical clan, Cucurbitaceae.

Regardless of what they called it, squash was an important food source for American settlers, according to "A Harvest of Pumpkins and Squash," by Lou Seibert Pappas.

And they remain popular for some of the same reasons: their deep flavor (well, except for the so-called summer squashes, which is a popular distinction, not a botanical one) and wealth of nutrients: beta carotene, vitamin C, potassium, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids.

Root also writes of Columbus spotting what he called "calebazzas" (which meant gourds, also of the Cucurbitaceae family) on the island that is now Cuba, but that these were also most definitely squash. Soon enough the new foodstuff was making the rounds in Europe. Squash were still unrecognized, however, as a new plant. Hernando De Soto lauded them as "better and more flavorful than those of Spain," according to Root, comparing them to the gourds of Europe, some of which were eaten.

Not everyone shared De Soto's love, however. It took until the 1800s for Europeans to embrace them to any degree, Root wrote. They didn't begin to catch on as food in England until the mid-1800s, perhaps because they called them (and still do) "vegetable marrow"—who wants to eat that? The French took even longer.

Squash were "embraced most enthusiastically by the Italians," according to The Food Encyclopedia, by Jacques L. Rolland and Carol Sherman, and throughout Africa. And Japan loves squash and has developed many varieties, some of which have found their way back to the American market, and are generally known as kabocha.

Now squashes, from acorn to zucchini, continue to travel the world, with new varieties continually being developed and shipped from continent to continent. They're prized for their myriad varieties, and as squash doyenne Amy Goldman, author of "The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower's Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds," writes, for their uncommon beauty.

jxgray@tribune.com