Monday, January 9, 2017

Woven Pumpkin Mats: A Traditional Way of Preserving Squash and Pumpkin


When I study the every day lives of people in history, I often find tidbits of information that have the potential to be of use in my own life. The past is rarely recorded in the exacting detail that I desire, so a bit more digging has to be done. 
During a recent trip to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Zak and I spent close to six hours exploring just a small fraction of the museum, mostly in the exhibits on Native North and South American Cultures. Despite seeing massive red cedar totem poles, awe-inspiring basketry and pottery, and breathtaking masks, what appeared to be a neatly woven leather door mat caught my attention and nagged at my thoughts for weeks. Upon reading the informational signage next to it, I learned that it was not made of leather nor was it a doormat, but it was actually thin strips of dried pumpkin that had been ingeniously looped together for ease of storage and transport. This technique was used by various Native American tribes to preserve pumpkin for the winter. That was all it said, but since I am always looking for new ways to preserve food without electricity, I had to know more! 

Six months, at least a dozen mangled squashes and pumpkins, hours of experimentation, and some useful information from the Kansas Historical Society later, I have figured it out! Mostly. 

To make your own pumpkin mat you will need at least one pumpkin or squash, a sharp knife, and a place to hang it from. Almost all of the sources that I have read refer only to the use of pumpkin in regards to this method, but I have found that butternut squash works well too, although it is more challenging to cut up. If you are using a pumpkin, start by cutting off the top and removing the seeds as if you were going to carve a jack o’ lantern. Carefully remove the outer skin of the pumpkin or squash with a knife or vegetable peeler. In The Lost Universe: Pawnee Life and Culture, author Gene Wiltfish describes how it was more efficient to remove the skin by charring the outside before scraping it off with a clam shell. 

If you are using a squash, cut off the stem and begin to cut the rest in a spiral. Whether you are using squash or pumpkin, the hope is to cut it into one continuous spiral about 1” or less thick all the way down to the bottom. This is easier said than done, especially with squash, so don’t feel bad if it breaks. 


On my most recent try I ended up with three in the end even though I have done this before. I’m sure that there were some grandmas back in the day that could whip these things out perfectly, though, and it is always my goal to be that skilled. 


Once you have cut your pumpkin into a spiral, carefully hang it from it’s middle over a piece of rope or a stick either over your wood stove or out in the sun. As it dries, the curls will begin to loosen into long, smooth strips. Once they are straight, take them off and carefully pound them flat with a wooden mallet or something of the sort. I didn’t have a wooden mallet so I used the but end of the hatchet that I had next to my wood stove. It is important to pound it flat but not to break the strip so don’t get too carried away. If you find that your strips are too thick, like I did, then you can cut them down the middle. 


This is what my strips looked like after they straightened out and I cut them in half. 

To weave, start with a long strip and position it in several up and down arches. This is your warp, the basis on which to weave the horizontal sections, the weft. To weave, follow and under over pattern back and forth on the warp until your strip ends. To add in another weft section simply overlap it with the last and continue the pattern. When you are done, tuck in any loose ends and hang entire mat to dry more. 



Once it has dried slightly more, pound again to flatten. Rehang the mat and allow it to dry completely. This may take 24 hours if you are drying above a wood stove or up to a week if you are drying outside. Once it is completely dehydrated, you can cut off small pieces to use as needed. 


My end product is much smaller and messier than the example I saw at the museum, but I am going to keep trying to get it right! 

Dried pumpkin mats should stay good for several months, especially if kept in a cool, dry place. 

If you’d like to continue historically, try sewing your mats into a buckskin bag and storing them in a grass lined pit in the ground. This method is still used today by people wishing to store root vegetables who do not own a root cellar. The only modern adaptations include lining the pit with a metal trash can and covering the top with a straw bale. 

Note: 
The Kansas historical society mentions that the Wichita and Pawnee used this method, but I have also read of it being utilized by many other Native American tribes.

There is a similar method of drying pumpkin that many people also use. Instead of cutting their cucurbits in a spiral, they cut them into individual rings. These rings could then be put onto a long horizontal rung and left to dry. 

If you know more information about either of these methods I’d love to hear it in the comments! 




Disclaimer: This blog is just my opinion, nothing more. While I try my hardest, everything may not be accurage or complete. Do not hold me accountable for anything you do to harm yourself or the world around you. I do make money from this blog. If you click on any of the links in this blog, I make a small amount of money from it, at no extra cost to you. I am not sponsored by any of these companies, I just honestly love these products and want to give you the resources to find them. I am not a medican practictioner; consult a health professional before using any herbal remedies. I am not claiming to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any ailment.

1 comment:

  1. Super information! I've dried sweet, pop and flour corn as well as many types of beans. Drying squash enables preserving the last of the "three sisters", a major garden plot we grow every year. I have been keeping squash in our root cellar and incorporating any one that shows distress into the next meal. Many, many make it through winter and spring intact and some even meet cousins harvested the following fall. Your discovered technique will help preserve squash when a whole bunch have issues (like damage around the stem).

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