One bite of the North Georgia candy roaster, and all your prejudices about squash—born of mealy-mouthed, inferior, grocery store varieties—will split open like this sweet gourd’s oven-roasted skin. Growing up to 15 pounds and often longer than your forearm, the candy roaster, bred by members of the Cherokee Nation, has the heft of an extremely heavy baseball bat. Its clunkiness doesn’t diminish its beauty. Streaked tan and orange, with a watercolor wash of bottle green and teal at its ends, the candy roaster is a squash in an Impressionist painting.
Its taste is no less artistic. The candy roaster has a pumpkin-like, slightly nutty flavor that deepens the longer it’s stored. Stashed in a cool place, such as a cupboard or a basement, for up to six months, the squash not only keeps, but also sweetens. When roasted with a little bit of fat, its orange flesh caramelizes to a creamy, candy-crunchy exterior with a burnt-sugar, buttery nuttiness. This storability made the squash a good option for its original growers, who could harvest it in its autumn abundance and keep it for lean times. Today, the candy roaster’s long shelf life is a boon to home gardeners wondering what to do with a huge harvest, and bakers, who find its sweet, creamy-textured flesh perfect for pies.
Originally bred by the Cherokee Nation in the 1800s, the candy roaster called the regions of what is now western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and northern Georgia home. The squash reached non-Native kitchens by 1925, the date of the earliest known newspaper ads offering its seeds for sale beyond the Cherokee community. It became an Appalachian Thanksgiving pie filling in lieu of pumpkin. Today, the squash’s seeds are still guarded by the Cherokee Nation, who keep them in their seed bank in order to save the relatively rare cultivar from going extinct. Ironically, the gourd’s own ready reproduction is one of the main barriers to its preservation: It can cross-pollinate with other squashes, producing offspring without its distinctive look and flavor.
Today, the candy roaster remains one of the many indigenous American cultivars left behind by industrial agriculture, almost impossible to find on supermarket shelves. Those curious to taste a bit of candy should turn toward farmer’s markets in western North Carolina, the northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. Those who are extra eager to taste it, and happen to live in the right climate, can grow their own. At harvest time, don’t be alarmed by the vine’s 15-pound products: The candy roaster will wait for you all winter, and will only get sweeter with age.