Summer squash is in the air (and, where the drought hasn’t struck, overflowing in the garden). When fellow culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump mentioned them in a recent short essay, it inspired a look back to the four doyennes of Southern cookery, and turned up three different ways of getting the similar results from Mary Randolph, Lettice Bryan, and Annabella Hill:
“Squash or Cimlin.
Gather young squashes, peel, and cut them in two; take out the seeds, and boil them till tender; put them into a colander, drain off the water, and rub them with a wooden spoon through the colander; then put them into a stew-pan, with a cupful of cream, a small piece of butter, some pepper and salt, stew them, stirring very frequently, until dry. This is the most delicate way of preparing squashes.”
— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1824)
There is only one nice way of preparing summer squash or cymblings. Gather them when very young and soft, so that you can nip the peeling or rind with your nail; then they have their full flavor; the seeds are nothing more than blisters, and the whole of the cymblings are good to eat; do not cut them to pieces before they are boiled, as, to boil them in clear water after they are cut up, makes them insipid. Rinse them clean, put them in a pot of boiling water, with a handful of salt, and boil them gently till they are done very tender; then drain and mash them fine, pressing the pulp through a cullender, put them in a sauce-pan, with a good lump of butter, rolled in flour, some pepper, and a glass of rich sweet cream; set it over a few coals, and stir it constantly till it absorbs the seasonings, and becomes nearly dry. It is generally served with roast meats. There are various colors and sizes of summer squash, but all should be dressed alike, except when they get very large, and rather old; of course they should be split, and the seeds taken out before they are boiled, though at such an age they are not good.”
— Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife (1839)
“426. Squash.—Gather them as long as the outside skin can be easily punctured; after that they are too old. Peel and slice them; keep them in water until time to cook them—from half an hour to three quarters is sufficient, depending upon the age and size. Salt the water they are boiled in. Put them to cook in hot water; keep the vessel covered. When tender, empty them into a colander, and press the water out; mash them; wipe out the stew-pan; return the squash, and season with cream, butter, salt, and pepper.”
— Annabella Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book (1867)
Today, cymlings are a specific kind of squash (as they probably were in Mrs. Randolph’s day as well)—a disk-shaped squash with ruffled edges, but Mrs. Bryan used the term more loosely, as a generic name for all summer squash, and probably called even yellow crooknecks by that name.
All the Southern cookbook authors who followed these ladies gave similar instructions that varied only in detail. Mrs. Bryan’s is hands-down the most sensitive recipe, from her careful instructions for gathering right through to the admonition that cutting them up before boiling them will make them insipid (Sorry, Mrs. Randolph—she’s right on this one)—at least, if you plan to boil them in a lot of water, the way you’d blanch green vegetables. I don’t.
Here’s my variation on the theme; it’s a lovely way to prepare delicate summer squash of any kind, but especially tender little yellow crooknecks:
Creamed Summer Squash
Carefully wash 2 pounds of small, very tender young yellow crookneck squash, gently rubbing to remove any grit that may be clinging to them. Trim and slice them and put them in a saucepan. If you like, add half of a small yellow onion, trimmed, peeled and sliced. Add a large pinch of salt and just enough water to keep it from scorching, cover the pan, and bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat. Adjust the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally to make sure it’s not scorching, until the squash and onions (if using) are tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover, raise the heat, and boil off any remaining liquid. Off the heat, add a small lump of butter (how much depends on what you like), and mash the squash with a potato masher until the butter is melted and incorporated and the squash are fairly smooth but still have a little texture. Stir in half a cup of cream and season well with more salt (if needed) and a few liberal grindings of pepper, again to taste. Return the pan to the heat and stir until the liquids have evaporated and the cream is thickened. Turn off the heat and serve immediately.