“Slave Food” The Sweet Potato Pumpkin


Although it sounds exotic, the sweet potato pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata) was the late fall glory of the African Virginian’s table and as our ancestors were sold South they carried its seeds with them.  Thomas Jefferson stated clearly that it was “On account of the extreme resemblance of its taste to that of the sweet potato, it may be originating form your islands…it is well esteemed at our tables, and particularly valued by our Negroes.”  A few years later, George Washington would echo Jefferson’s letter to Samuel Vaughn, writing Anthony Young in England in 1792—“We have lately had introduced a plant of the melon species which…we have called a pumpkin…its taste ..is that of the sweet potato…It is but  yet little known…but it is particularly valued by our Negroes..”  Cushaws produced from the late summer into the late fall, taking the place of sweet potatoes while they were out of season.  The word cushaw is derived from an Algonquin word, although the plant itself ultimately derives from the indigenous peoples of Central America and the West Indies, possibly Jamaica.  In Jamaica they replaced the edible gourds that West and Central Africans were used to.  When African Virginians moved across the Piedmont into the Appalachians, they brought the sweet potato pumpkin with them, and like the banjo (Kimbundu: mbanza) it became part of Southern Appalachian culture.  Cushaws are made into cushaw butter, pie filling, puddings, and are cooked on their own.  Striped green and creamy white, the “potato pumpkin,” made it into The Virginia Housewife, having attained popularity across lines of class and race.

1 medium sweet potato pumpkin or cushaw

1 teaspoon of salt

½ cup of molasses

¼ cup of butter

a few dashes of spiced rum


1.  Cut the top off of the pumpkin and pare off the rind.  Scoop out the seeds and reserve them for other dishes or for seed saving.  Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.


2.  Cut the sweet potato pumpkin up into small chunks and place in a pot or Dutch oven with water to cover.  Add the salt.  Boil gently until just barely fork-tender.


3.  Drain from the water and place the cushaw in a Dutch oven.  Mix with the molasses, butter, and rum and bake for 35 minutes.




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