Her father grew “The Squash.” So did her grandmother. And it’s likely her great-grandmother grew it, too.
“In my family, it never had an official name,” says Joanne Kirkland, who was raised north of Boise, in Horseshoe Bend, where her ancestors homesteaded in the mid-1800s. The homestead is no longer in the family. But “The Squash” remains.
It was the only squash her family grew. “This was it. This was ‘The Squash.’ Period,” Joanne says. “‘The Squash’ was a staple in our household. We knew in winter we would be eating it. And, for many, many years, my father wouldn’t share the seeds.”
For decades, the seeds were carefully guarded—like a secret recipe or family heirloom. But, in his 80s, her father changed his mind. “As he was nearing the end of his life, he decided, yes, this is a family treasure, but he didn’t want it to be lost or forgotten. He said, ‘I’m not going to last forever, but I want The Squash to last forever,’ and we may start giving away the seeds. So I began giving them to a few people I knew.”
By the time she and her husband, Larry, had permission to share the beloved cucurbit, they had long been growing their own in their backyard garden in Moscow, Idaho. “It’s one of the most foolproof things we grow,” Joanne says. “It’s such a wonderful squash. It’s so easy to grow. And it’s such an excellent keeper.” It’s not unusual to finish the last of one year’s crop as the new year’s yield is harvested.
These days, folks don’t have to be acquainted with the Kirklands to get hold of what’s now officially known as Latah squash, a vining winter variety grown on the Palouse and in the Boise Basin for more than a century. Thanks to the efforts of Brad Jaeckel, manager of Eggert Family Organic Farm at Washington State University Pullman, Latah squash seeds recently became available through the Snake River Seed Cooperative, which specializes in regional heirloom varieties.
“I want to make sure the seed is out there for the larger farming community so we don’t lose it,” says Jaeckel, the main keeper of Latah squash seed for the cooperative. “I feel a responsibility in stewarding that seed.”
Jaeckel named the squash, a cultivar of Cucurbita maxima, for Latah County, where the Kirklands have been cultivating it for nearly five decades. Joanne’s father also grew it for some sixty years. “The Squash,” Joanne guesses, dates in her family to the Boise Basin gold rush, when her great-grandmother came to Idaho. “She came in a covered wagon from Wyoming. Whether ‘The Squash’ was with her on that journey I do not know,” says Joanne, noting a relative recently told her the squash seed may have originally come from Georgia before her family acquired it in Horseshoe Bend. There, her great-grandmother “had a truck garden and sold veggies to the miners. We can only guess ‘The Squash’ was part of that.”
Growing up, it was served as a side, “like you would mashed potatoes.” It was prized for its long storage capacity, rich flavor, velvety texture, and versatility. Its dense, bright orange flesh—which smells faintly of cantaloupe when first cut—is delicious in both sweet and savory dishes—from silky puréed soups, pasta, and risotto to spice cakes and muffins. Plus, it’s perfect in pie. Roasted and combined with sugar and warming spices, it’s sweet, smooth, and super creamy—even without the addition of condensed or evaporated milk or heavy cream.
“You could do anything to it you would a can of pumpkin,” Joanne says. Larry agrees, but notes, “I like this better than pumpkin.”
The hardy variety, squat and round in the middle, sports a tough, peach-colored skin. Larry’s yield features a cream-colored crown containing seeds, similar to Turk’s Turban. His father-in-law’s looked similar, but “perhaps a bit smaller.” Larry’s usually run around 10 pounds.
“It’s a pretty unusual squash, and it’s pretty big,” Jaeckel says. “You’ve got to be brave when you tap a Latah. It’s a lot of squash.”
His crop at home and WSU is similar in size, color, flavor, and texture, but lacks the knobby crown, and instead sports a tapered top, like the teardrop-shape of a Blue Hubbard. Some even feature a tinge of dusty blue at the blossom end. He wonders if his open-pollinated plants might have crossed with a Blue Hubbard during a breeding experiment Jaeckel worked on years ago with a WSU researcher. (“Our pie-in-the-sky idea was to create a crimson and gray pumpkin,” he notes.)
Jaeckel first encountered “The Squash” at a friend’s Moscow home in 2005. He was over for dinner, didn’t recognize the variety, and asked about its origins. The friend had gotten it from another friend, who had gotten it from Larry.
Jaeckel planted his first Latah squash in 2006 at his own private Orchard Farm, which grows herbs and flowers for his wife’s business, Orchard Farm Soap. In 2007, he also planted Latah squash at WSU. Since then, he’s been cultivating the seeds at his home farm and donating them to Eggert Family Organic Farm, where he’s been selling Latah squash and slowly increasing the yield for 16 seasons. In 2021, the WSU farm grew 1,000 pounds of Latah squash. This year, it’s on track to grow 2,000 pounds.
Eggert Family Organic Farm is one of the few places that sells Latah squash. And Jaeckel wants to change that. In 2020, he started selling seeds to the cooperative, which first offered them for retail last year. This year, packets reached seed racks in stores such as the Moscow Food Co-op. Moscow’s Affinity Farm also recently started growing Latah squash, selling seeds to the cooperative to augment Jaeckel’s crop as well as plant starts and full-grown fruit at the Moscow Farmers Market.
“There isn’t a huge demand for it yet,” Jaeckel says. “We need more growers to help produce the seed.”
Meantime, the exact provenance of Latah squash “still kind of remains a mystery,” says Jaeckel, who’s perused vintage seed catalogs looking for similar varieties. “I’ve done Google image searches on squashes—that’s a fun thing to do on a rainy day—and haven’t found one that looks like this elsewhere.”