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How Decorative Gourd Season Conquered Fall

Strange-looking squash have become big business for farmers

(Girgiel, Edyta/the food passionates/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

They’re otherworldly, weird-looking and sport names like Turk's Turban, Goblin Eggs and Lunch Lady. This autumn, you'll find them in rustic baskets across America. They’re decorative gourds, and as NPR’s Vanessa Rancano reports, they’ve become an increasingly hot commodity for farmers.

While squash are among the earliest plants domesticated by humans, Rancano writes, the most bizarre varieties have recently come into vogue as seasonal ornaments. Gourd breeders tell Rancano that they've spend decades perfecting colorfully gnarled squash, which they sell at auction to farmers' market vendors, restaurant owners, or grocers — and at high markup to fall fanatics. 

The decorative gourd is no niche fad, either; its price nearly doubled between 1993 and 2007. They're so popular they’ve sparked data analyses of precisely when their season begins and ends, wildly shared parodies and helped support a grassroots tradition of folk crafts. (Painted birdhouses, anyone?) Perhaps this demand can be chalked up to the commodification of autumn — a celebration of all things fall that spreads from Starbucks lattes and flavored Twinkies to “fall-scented” kitty litter.

Or maybe, the rise of the gourd is part of a broader food trend: a move towards cherishing ugly, funky-looking fruits and vegetables. With everything from “imperfect” CSAs to art projects about ugly produce finding acclaim, it's safe to say misshapen crops are having a culinary moment. Ugly produce makes up to 40 percent of food waste in some countries — so it's about time that twisted squash gets a place in the spotlight.

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