john%20coykendall%20cushaw%201-550?v=1

A Q&A with John Coykendall

Celebrating the Cushaw and the Importance of Seed-Saving

John Coykendall is a Tennessee Treasure. A native of Knoxville, John is an artist, seed saver, and farmer. For more than four decades, John has discovered, cultivated, and preserved varieties of heirloom seed and is passionate about saving seeds and stories. In his book, Preserving Our Roots: My Journey to Save Seeds and Stories, co-written with Christian Melton, John highlights staple crops, agricultural practices, and favorite recipes from the families and friends who have hosted him. Accompanied by a rich selection of drawings, journal pages, and photographs―along with more than forty recipes―Preserving Our Roots chronicles Coykendall’s passion for recording foods and narratives that capture the rhythms of daily life on farms, in kitchens, and across generations. 

John, why do you save heirloom seed?

Well, it’s so important. We went through a long period of time where we forgot about the old seeds and the old varieties. Modern agriculture came in, and your small farms began to disappear. People were leaving the farms, moving to cities, so a lot of those things fell by the wayside. When the old ones started to die out, there wasn’t anyone left to carry that on. Luckily, however, there was a number that did, especially in your Appalachian region. The Appalachian region is more diverse as far as seed saving, seeds available than anywhere in the country, by far. So old varieties have been persevered and handed down to us.

What is a cushaw?

The cushaw is a member of the squash family, and they can weigh, oh, 20-25 pounds, some of the really bigger ones. But they’re curved in shape, the real ideal ones—sort of like a crooked neck, a big curve. And the bulb end is the part that contains the seed, and the neck is solid, and that has all the good flesh. I remember at the fair, Mr. Alvin Rutledge, who used to judge at the Tennessee Valley Fair, always looked for that nice curve that you got in the cushaw. It would come around almost to the bulb end of it. Now they are light to white in color with green striping. There’s also the orange cushaw with orange striping on it, but the most predominant type is the green stripe.

From where did cushaw originate?

Cushaws came to America in the 1700s from the Caribbean. I’m not sure which island or islands, but they quickly became a favorite in the southland, grown all over farms and then the mid-Atlantic states and, I think, later in other states as well. It can be grown almost anywhere. I sent seeds of it to an Indian Reservation in Oglala, South Dakota, one year when they were looking for seeds out there to grow on that reservation. I sent flat tan pumpkins, the cushaw, and beans, and a number of other varieties. So it will grow just about anywhere.

Do you save your cushaw seed from year to year? 

I do and always select from the very best specimens. That could be for size, shape, color, weight, and many different factors. 

Are all cushaw an heirloom variety, or have they hybridized cushaw seed?

Not to my knowledge, they all date back to the original. Or, as the old folks say, they’re branch kin to it anyway.

How is cushaw used in cooking?

They are wonderful for cooking. The best way I have discovered over the years to avoid all of that painstaking peeling which can be dangerous, with a sharp knife. What I do is cut that in half, scoop out all the seed and pulp. Put that on a large baking pan in the oven and fill that with as much water as you can. And bake that at about 200 degrees. You don’t want to brown it; you just want to soften that flesh up. Then, when that starts to collapse, you can scoop out all that meat and material out of it, so you don’t have to go through all of that painstaking peeling. They’re good for so many uses. They’re good, just strewed down with some brown sugar or honey. Of course, for pies, they used to be very prevalent. Some say that the cushaw makes a better pie than a pumpkin.

Join Amy Campbell-Rochelson weekly at The Tennessee Farm Table Podcast & Broadcast for stories of Food, Farming, and Folklore. Listen on your schedule by podcast at TennesseeFarmTable.com or listen in on your radio Saturday mornings at 9:00, 89.9. WDVX, Knoxville, 2:00 WUTC, Chattanooga and Sundays at 1:00 from Radio Bristol. More information: www.TennesseeFarmTable.com.

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