Back in 1997 I was asked to speak at the Salem County Historical Society in Salem, N.J., an old Quaker town situated in the middle of well-preserved farmlands with an agricultural history going back to the 1600s.
Not knowing what to charge as an honorarium, I suggested that instead of money, why not have everyone who attends bring heirloom seeds with their stories. That was probably the most brilliant stroke of genius I could have ever come up with because the outcome was totally overwhelming: I returned home with boxes and boxes of rare and unusual varieties.
This brings me to Nanticoke maycocks and the gradual resurrection of a rare, almost extinct group of Native American summer squashes that are now among my most-prized heirloom vegetables.
One of the people attending the lecture was an elderly woman from Millsboro, Delaware. She had come across the bay via the Lewes ferry and brought along a bag of squash seeds that she had wrapped in tin foil and frozen in 1982 with the idea of finding a home for them because she could no longer garden. She had grown up among a group of people in the backwoods swamps of Eastern Shore Maryland who claimed to be the descendants of Nanticoke Indians, although she was quick to admit she had a few pirates and runaway slaves in her genealogical tree as well.
I gave her my card and said “write me” because in the flurry of the lecture evening, the chatter of several hundred people, there was no time to sit down and talk at length. I wrote what little she related to me on the outside of the bag and let it go at that, perhaps at the time rather dubious that I had indeed acquired something old and rare. No time to plant the seed myself, I repacked them into my own freezer when I got home and did not get back to the seed until 2004. I never did hear from the woman and was puzzled what next to do.
Looking back on that evening, I wish I had taken a tape recorder because I have since lost touch with her and now have literally hundreds of questions to ask. That kind of serendipity is part of the process of collecting heirloom seeds; the lesson learned is to stay completely on top of the moment, because we may not have a second opportunity to get the best part of the story.
After planting the seed in 2004 and seeing how it yielded about five or six distinct types of squash, I immediately contacted Wesley Green at Colonial Williamsburg. Wesley was ecstatic. It seems that John Bannister, in his Natural History of Virginia published in 1681 mentioned maycocks as a local/regional term among the native peoples for summer squash.
Onto something, I began comparing the grow-outs against 1770s watercolors in a massive portfolio created by French botanist Antoine Duchesne. It was his intention to do a book on North American squash, but he never got beyond the drawings, which have since been published.
Eureka! Wesley and I discovered we had quite a few look-alikes, and one small white-skinned squash, rather flat and oblate in shape, matches an 18th-century specimen coming from the Lenape Indians of Pennsylvania and now in an herbarium at the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia; that specimen was published by the late John Witthoft, formerly a state anthropologist.
Today I am proud to say that although it all happened in a most casual and accidental way, I have managed to salvage squash unlike any other and remarkable for their taste and storage qualities. The white ones have stored in perfect condition for more than 7 months.
The breakthrough is that while we probably do not have genetic duplicates of the Duchesne specimens (many of which were mongrel crosses), we certainly have look-alikes or phenol-types and this now opens up a whole new vista on American kitchen gardens of the 18th century. At last, cultural institutions like Colonial Williamsburg can plant squash in their historic gardens with a degree of confidence that they have representative examples that will pass muster for authenticity and provide years of culinary experimentation for food historians dedicated to tasting the past.
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.