Rediscovering a unique Pennsylvania Dutch heirloom locally know as Mountian Bummy squash, named after the nickname of the man who discovered it.
I am not sure which is more colorful: the man who originally saved this heirloom squash, or the manner in which I found it. Let us zoom back in time to 1974 to a virtually frozen-in-time Victorian country store in a little crossroads place called Niantic, Pennsylvania. The owner of the property at the time was Lamar W. Bumbaugh, otherwise known as Mountain Bummy, a trapper and dealer in furs, a flea market picker and seller of rare books, and perhaps foremost an herb pappy, which in Pennsylvania Dutch is known as Brauchmeeschter (powwow doctor).
Powwow medicine is alive and well in the Dutch Country. It is a type of faith healing intermingled with very ancient pre-Christian beliefs, a reliance on botanical remedies or “green cures,” and presumably a mystical ability to communicate with plants. Among the Pennsylvania Dutch practitioners this ability is called Iewwing and it is the green Iewwing upon which they rely for their healing effectiveness.
Mountain Bummy was famous locally for his unique abilities, and because my own grandfather had been schooled in the same learning, I visited Bummy often to hear the yarns he had to tell. I also bought books and herbs from him, so business was a mixture of powwow chat and what sort of treasures he had just found in a neighborhood attic. Bummy was a charmer when it came to women, so it was no surprise to me that lonely widows kept his phone number on file. Conquests and antiquing went hand in hand.
Bummy also maintained a garden. It was located behind the store (he lived upstairs), and parts of it were hidden by a screen of towering corn—because on the other side of the corn, or more accurately, in the middle of it, stood a number of robust, tree-like marijuana plants which seemed to supply the real cash flow upon which the Bummy Industry operated. When all else failed him financially, his network of widows came to the rescue for a few ounces of relaxation. They also provided him with many of the rare herbs he grew in his garden, and he was keenly aware of their history, their powwow uses, and even that there was such a thing as an heirloom plant.
It was there in Bummy’s garden where I first saw the squash that now bears his name. And I know that it was in 1974 because Bummy was at the time setting up his herb society and had just printed brochures outlining the proposed workshops for 1975 (see image on next page).
The squash possessed a form that I had never seen before, like a large pear-shaped lump of dough beginning to melt. Bummy kept them all over the store, on shelves, hanging from the ceiling by rope, nestled among piles of furs, and sliced up into schnitz (small segments) and strung across the room like crepe paper for a party. He actually lived off this squash most of the winter and sometimes cooked it with game he had trapped for fur.
Where did it come from, Bummy? He did not remember her name but he had acquired it from an old Mennonite lady north of Bally, Pennsylvania (not far from Niantic). She was not a conquest: Years before (during the 1940s, if I am not mistaken) she sold the squash at Zern’s Farmers Market where she had kept a stand. It was not a good pie pumpkin, which may be why it fell out of favor with local seed savers. However, it was a great keeper and made excellent stews, so its virtues lay in other places. Thus, in 1974, I took home three or four of the squash and I have grown it off and on since then.
Last year, 2013, Kutztown University invited me to help construct an 1860s-style kitchen garden at the historic Sharadin House, which the university owns as part of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center (we plan to do an article on this garden for Heirloom Gardener later this year). I supplied plants for the raised beds and decided to trial a number of Pennsylvania Dutch heirlooms on the site. Bummy’s squash thrived in spite of setbacks from drought, groundhogs, and pretty bad soil—it will take several years to get that part of the garden plan up to speed. Just the same, we were able to harvest about 10 squash and save seed, so it is not as close to extinction as it was even two years ago.
When Bummy gave up the store in Niantic, he moved into an old house in Lyons, Pennsylvania, but due to failing health he stopped gardening. I visited him for an interview in 1993 and photographed him among his powwow paraphernalia for my book Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking. Bummy died sometime after that and no one other than me was maintaining seed for his rare squash. It is yet another old-time variety from the Dutch Country that needs safe keeping. Since it has no name, perhaps Mountain Bummy is as good as any, since it was so much connected with this colorful character during his heyday as a local powwow doctor.
Genetically speaking, the squash belongs to the species Cucurbita pepo and may be related to the patty pan group since in some ways it resembles a patty pan squash inflated like a balloon. Most of the squash are about 6½ inches tall and roughly 7 inches in diameter, so they more or less fill an imaginary square. Each fruit weights about 4 to 5 pounds with flesh-colored skin and yellow-white flesh. The mature flesh is best for soups or mixed pickles, while the very young, green ones are perfect as summer squash. The male flowers are remarkably large and ideal for stuffing.
Nothing like this squash appears in old seed catalogs, so we must presume that it is a true landrace as opposed to a “lost” commercial variety.
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.
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