Randolph’s recipes provide a sense of vegetable preparation in the Early National South. As a general rule, vegetables played a supporting role to a meat-centered main dish. In most recipes, vegetables were boiled and served with butter, salt, and pepper. While Randolph relies heavily on boiling for her vegetable recipes, she includes several variations.
Squash, like tomatoes, were relative newcomers to the diets of European colonists and their descendants. The name derives from the Algonquian word askut asquash, meaning eaten green or unripe. Introduced to the so-called Three Sisters (corn, squash, and beans) by their Native neighbors, colonists quickly adopted these reliable crops that could be used in European-style dishes. Squashes lent themselves to English puddings, pies, and simply baking or boiling. The squash family includes summer and winter varieties. Summer squashes are picked at an earlier stage while the seeds and skin are edible. Winter squashes have tougher skin and require peeling and seed removal before cooking. The thick skins of winter squashes provide a long shelf life when stored in a cool, dry place, making them a staple vegetable for long winters.
Randolph’s recipe uses the southern term for pattypan squash. The name of this summer squash (Cucurbita pepo) derives from its scalloped appearance and varies by region. Randolph spells it “cimlin,” but simlin, symbling, and cymling are common spelling variations. Robert Beverly, a historian of early Virginia, wrote, “They are sometimes call’d Cymnels . . . from the Lenten Cake of that name, which many of them very much resemble.” Beverly refers to Simnel Cake, a light fruit cake layered with marzipan and capped with a circle of marzipan eggs or crenelated decoration, traditionally served on the fourth Sunday in Lent in Great Britain, Ireland, and other European countries. The cake has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years thanks to a technical challenge on The Great British Bake Off.
The persistence in names for this squash, pattypan in the northern United States and cymling in the southern, is a legacy of the earliest colonists’ religious affiliations. In New England, the first colonists to encounter squash and adopt the vegetable into their foodways were Pilgrims and Puritans, members of separatist faiths who eschewed the Anglican tradition’s pomp and circumstance. These colonists consequently named the squash for its resemblance to a pan for baking a patty. In the southern colonies, first populated by Anglican and Catholic colonists, a cake connected to a Lenten celebration inspired the squash’s name.
Randolph’s recipe for summer squash follows Beverley’s recommendation for preparing the vegetable in The History and Present State of Virginia. Beverley advised,
These being boil’d whole, when the Apple is young, and the Shell tender, and dished with Cream or Butter, relish very well with all sorts of Butcher’s Meat, either fresh or salt.Robert Beverly, The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts (London: R. Parker, 1705), 27.
Randolph elevates the dish by pureeing the squash by passing it through a colander before cooking it with the cream and butter. Randolph describes this preparation as “the most delicate way of preparing squashes.” Since the butter and cream mask the subtle flavor of summer squash, if you’re overrun with squashes and absolutely tired of them but compelled to eat as many as possible, this recipe could be a welcome change in flavor and texture.
Squash or Cimlin
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 110.
Adapted by RA Snell
- 2 medium summer squashes
- 4 tablespoons cream
- 1/2 tablespoon butter
- salt & pepper
1. Peel your squashes, cut them in half, and remove the seeds. Cut into smaller pieces, roughly uniform in size.
2. Boil until tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain the squash well allowing the squash to sit in the colander for 5-10 minutes to drain all the liquid.
3. Run through a food mill on the medium texture grinding disc.
4. Place the squash puree in a small pan with the cream and butter. Cook over medium heat until the liquid has cooked off and the puree is, as Randolph describes it, “dry.”
5. Season with salt and pepper.
Yield: ~ ½ cup (a dismally sad amount)
Randolph describes her recipe as “the most delicate way of preparing squashes,” but I’m skeptical squashes were regularly prepared in this manner. First, my two medium squashes yielded a parsimonious ½ cup of squash. Squash are abundant in the summer months, but it would still require a large number of squash to feed an average sized family for the early nineteenth-century, even as a side dish. Secondly, the method is labor intensive. Before I pulled out the food mill, I attempted Randolph’s method of rubbing the squash through a colander with a spoon – it was difficult bordering on impossible. Too much work for too little result, in my opinion.
I’ve used straight neck squash for this recipe as that is what I had available. This recipe will work with any summer squash. When using a thin-skinned squash like straight neck or zucchini, peeling is unnecessary.
 Robert Beverly, The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts (London: R. Parker, 1705), 27.
Kay K. Moss, Seeking the Historical Cook: Exploring Eighteenth-Century Southern Foodways (Columbia: S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2013), 120, 148.
Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 10, 60-61.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, ed. Karen Hess (Washington, D.C., 1824; repr., Columbia: S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), 110, 267.
Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 561.
Shrewsbury Simnel Cake with pastry covering and crenulated decoration, 1869
Unknown author – Chamber’s Book of Days, 1869 (http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/shrewsburysimnelcake.htm)
Summer Squash (Cucurbita pepo), 1857
Flore des serres et des jardins de l’Europe v.12 (1857)
From the Swallowtail Garden Seeds collection of botanical photographs and illustrations. We hope you will enjoy these images as much as we do.