Fruits & Vegetables
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians banded together to save a beloved heirloom squash.
Mirliton stalks cling to trellises and chain link fences across New Orleans neighborhoods, filtering backyard light into a leafy green. Known as a chayote in its home country of Mexico and in most other parts of the United States, the Gulf Coast variety of this knobby, oblong green squash is uniquely adapted to the region’s humid climate. So well adapted, in fact, that in late autumn, the plants produce pounds of fruit, which grace every possible preparation: mirliton salad, mirliton pie (a sweet loaf similar to banana bread), even mirliton wine. Raw, its flesh is light and crunchy like jicama. Cooked, the mirliton collapses into moistness, with a light, zucchini-like taste.
The mirliton has been a staple in Louisiana, and particularly in New Orleans, since it was brought to the city in the early 19th century. Some say the mirliton was brought from Haiti during the 1791–1804 revolution, citing as evidence the fact that Haiti is the only other place to call the vegetable by this name. However it may have arrived in the Gulf Coast, the mirliton has made itself a fixture of the Louisiana table and cultural life, even inspiring a decades-long (though now discontinued) festival. Most iconically, perhaps, its stuffed preparation is a Louisiana Thanksgiving centerpiece. Cooks take the gourd’s hollowed-out flesh, mix it with breadcrumbs, shrimp, and ground meat, drown it in butter, and bake it back in the mirliton’s green shell.
Despite this popularity, for the past couple decades, the Gulf Coast’s mirliton population has been in decline. It began with the import of standardized, Central American chayotes into Louisiana. Less well-adapted, yet more commercially available, these varieties began displacing local heirlooms. By 2005, their population was already dwindling. Then, the storm blew in. The same winds and rains that devastated residents’ lives and property nearly wiped out the New Orleans mirliton population. After the storm, locals worried that Hurricane Katrina had taken a vital aspect of their culinary culture.
This threat was a call to action. Local food lovers and activists banded together to form the “Adopt-a-Mirliton ” project, which is now the full-fledged nonprofit Mirliton.org. The nonprofit is a center for all things mirliton, from growing tips to a classifieds board where small-scale growers can buy, sell, and exchange the fruit. Largely thanks to these efforts, the mirliton is enjoying something of a revival in New Orleans, where fall farmer’s markets now offer tables laden deep with stacks of the squash.
Where to Try It
Crescent City Farmer's Market Downtown Website750 Carondelet St. at Julia St., Central Business District , New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
This weekly Saturday farmer's market offers local produce, including the iconic mirliton, when in season.