Unrepentant fan of pumpkin? Then you might consider adding Stone Age humans to your list of people to thank this holiday season. Without them, it wouldn't be possible to carve jack-o'-lanterns or chow down on a dense, moist slice of homemade pumpkin bread.
A new study suggests that the Cucurbita genus would likely not be around today if ancient humans in the Americas hadn't domesticated them. More than 10,000 years ago, wild pumpkin and squash species were a major food staple for megafauna like giant sloths (Megatherium, pictured at right) and mammoths, which ensured the continued survival of these plants by dispersing their seeds across the Americas. When these large mammalian creatures were gradually driven to extinction due to climate change and hunting, many of the wild Cucurbita species died off along with them.
Not all of them, though. Many of the ancient Cucurbita species tasted quite bitter, and while that was fine for the undiscriminating taste buds of megafauna, humans and smaller mammals preferred varietals that were a bit more palatable. As John Bohannon explains on ScienceMag.org, "The smaller mammals that took over in the Americas are thought to be far more sensitive to bitter-tasting plants, since they carry more genes for bitter taste receptor proteins compared to the extinct giants."
As a result, the gourds that tasted the best to humans were the ones that ultimately survived through domestication in the wake of the quaternary extinction event. To celebrate the continued survival of the wonderfully diverse world of Cucurbita, here are just a few modern day squashes and gourds you might want to consider for your dinner table.
Ah, butternut squash — a classic autumn pantry staple for any cook. Due to its popularity, there are so many options for working with this nutty-flavored squash (Butternut Squash Galette, anyone?), but we recommend keeping it simple by roasting it. Better yet, puree it and turn it into a Butternut Bisque.
Red kuri squash
The sweet yet mellow "chestnut" flavor of this lovely Japanese-bred gourd makes it a perfect candidate for both savory and dessert dishes, and its seed cavity is large enough to be stuffed.
While it's often lumped in as a winter squash, delicata is technically a summer squash like zucchini and yellow crookneck squash. As a result, its flavor is much milder — some have described it as a "cross between fresh corn and pumpkin pie." As indicated by its name, the delicata's skin is quite delicate and thin, so you can cook and eat it without peeling. Looking for the best way to experience all that delicata has to offer? Trying stuffing or roasting it.
Like delicata, acorn squash is often sold alongside classic winter squash, though it's technically a summer varietal that just happens to have an extra thick skin. Due to its size, it can be prepared as a perfectly portion dinner for two people — just slice it in half, stuff it and put it in the oven to bake. Looking for some recipe inspiration? Try this Roasted Acorn Squash with Quinoa and Mint.
No matter where you go, everyone seems to be in love with pumpkin. As a result, pumpkin-obsessed cooks are constantly trying to find new ways to incorporate it in their meals. From Spicy Pumpkin Hummus to Pumpkin Brownies, you really can't go wrong with how you cook this beloved gourd.
Named for its festive colors and patterns, the carnival squash was developed as a hybrid of acorn squash and sweet dumpling squash. The showy green and gold stripes belie a sweet yet mellow taste similar to butternut squash. Because of this similarity, it is quite versatile in soups, stews and casseroles. Still deciding how you should prepare it? Why not try this Winter Squash Casserole?
The gray-green pumpkin was developed in Australia, and while it's a perfect contender for autumn decorations, you shouldn't stop there. Jarrahdale pumpkins have a bright orange flesh that is slightly sweet and melon-like. Like many other pumpkin varietals, it does well in a variety of contexts, from sweet to savory. Need a few ideas? Try making Pumpkin Butter or Pumpkin Liquor!
When cooked, spaghetti squash creates uncanny "noodles" that are are a great alternative for people who are looking to avoid pasta. The most popular way to serve these silly squash noodles is to top it with your favorite pasta sauce, but there are many other interesting spaghetti squash recipes to consider if you like thinking out of the box.
Behind the greenish-blue skin of a Hubbard squash is a beautiful orange flesh similar in taste and consistency of a pumpkin. Because of this, it's often used in recipes as a substitute for pumpkin.
This odd heirloom squash is famous for its turban-like shapes and mottling of colors ranging from orange, green, white and red. It's flavor isn't to shabby either. It's known for its hazelnut-like flavor, though growers say the flavor isn't as vibrant as other squashes.
Ground sloth photo: ДиБгд [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons