The Poetry of Winter Squash
By Lesley S. King
“Queensland blue, sweet dumpling, buttercup, pink banana and Hubbard,” says David Fresquez pointing at squash that’s enchantingly colored aqua, yellow, sienna and emerald. We’re standing in a field amidst towering cottonwood trees near the village of La Mesilla north of Santa Fe. Around us lie piles of the colorful globes ready for market, evidence of what David terms his “love of squash,” a passion that can send him off in episodes of romantic reverie.
David and his wife, Loretta, of Monte Vista Farm, have built a strong reputation for the wide variety and high quality of their winter squash, along with other crops, especially potatoes, onions, spinach, and more recently, raspberries. As well, David makes a special garlic-scape powder, an excellent seasoning in salad dressings, soups and stews. Most notable for me, during the cold winter months, is their seemingly endless stash of Jerusalem artichokes, theirs most coveted because the meat inside is pink. All of their produce is certified organic.
But it’s the squash that sets David’s eyes sparkling and the names flowing like poetry from his lips. It’s such a passion that he and Loretta travel to places such as France and Italy tracking down seeds. “At a market in Lyon, I asked a farmer if I could have some seeds and he gave them to me,” David says of one of his earlier forays into seeking out exotic varieties. And the search continued from there. “I’m always on the lookout,” he says. “I’ve gotten them from Guatemala, Australia, England, Maine and New York.”
Now, while wandering through his carefully tended garden, David stops and dashes inside the house, returning with a big illustrated book about squash. He shows me pictures of the mahogany-colored Rouge vif d’Etamps—also called Cinderella—that he says is ideal for pies; and the elephant-skinned marina di chioggia, with sweet, dry flesh. His favorites for eating, which he also shows me, are the Galeux d’Eysines—a comical pink one with warts on it: “we ate some last night for dinner,” he says; Australian butter—a pumpkin-shaped heirloom, which, when cooked, has a custardy texture: “that’s really good.” And finally the musquée de Provence, which has deep ridges on the outside and bold red flesh with a nutty, citrus flavor. He also likes its flowers. “It puts out real sturdy squash blossoms. You can stuff them and they’re very tasty.”
He and Loretta grow most of their squash in Rio Lucio in the high country near Peñasco. “The soil is black there,” David says. “You plant the seeds and they just go crazy!” And that’s the quality besides their beauty and taste that draws him to squash. “It’s like magic. When the plants are vining out, some will take off from here to the wall,” he says pointing 20 feet in front of us. “One day the squash is as big as your hand. Then next day it’s as big as a basketball.”
All of their squash is not exotic. In fact, some varieties are truly from this land. David and Loretta’s ancestors farmed this part of the world since the days the first Spaniards arrived here in the 1600s. “We have local heirlooms that may date from that time,” he says. One of them they call tío pumpkin—uncle pumpkin. “Loretta’s uncle was the original owner of the seed and we just carried it on,” David says. It’s gray-green, sometimes with shades of pink and has bright orange flesh. It’s a rare squash that David and Loretta saved from demise when they found a jar of seeds in the deceased uncle’s cellar. David doesn’t take such deeds lightly. He has another variety he obtained from “the mountain boys” of Gemini Farm, and yet another from a woman in Youngsville, near Abiquiu. These local seeds are especially important because they’re attuned to the growing conditions in the region, he stresses.
Even though the squash are hardy, David and Loretta still contend with challenges in growing them. In the fall, in Rio Lucio, which is at 7,000 feet elevation, frost is always imminent. And down here in La Mesilla, other conditions threaten their crops. Last year, grasshoppers ate most of their tomato plants. “We had so many that when you’d walk, they’d pop up like popcorn,” Loretta says. And viruses are always a threat. “If a plague hits the valley, it’ll cost all your farming,” David says. “I’ll plant 1,000 tomato plants and I can lose four-fifths of them to something like the curly top virus.” He combats such problems by staying diversified. “You plant other crops, so you don’t suffer from one loss.”
Another factor in creating Monte Vista Farm’s delectable produce is water. In both the high country at Rio Lucio and in La Mesilla, irrigation comes from artesian springs. “The water is very pure,” says David, which sweetens the produce’s flavor. David also gives credit to the plant food. “Bat guano, trace minerals, kelp, worm casings, fish emulsion and compost,” he says, listing a few of his favorite amendments, always added in the fall. And after the feeding and planting are done, the magic takes over. The squash grows until the first frost. Then, in a purely poetic end, lies a new beginning: “The frost kills the plant, and you harvest the squash,” David says. “The longer you have them on the vine, the better.”