(News article for January 2020)
Back in my 4-H agent days, I took a group of kids to the National 4-H Dairy Conference in Madison, WI. On our journey home we detoured through Chicago and stopped at a gas station about an hour south of the city. A gentleman approached me at the gas station, mentioned he had seen the LSU logo on our van, and asked me what we were doing. He was from Ruston, LA. I proceeded to answer him and asked him the same question in return. He told me he was delivering a load of cucuzza to Chicago and that he was one of the largest growers of cucuzza in the nation. He marketed his cucuzza to Italian chefs and markets in Chicago.
Most people have not heard of cucuzza, pronounced ku-KOO-za, but I grew up near Independence, LA where there is a large Italian-American population. Not only have I eaten a delicious cucuzza stew, I have received cucuzza shared by friends at church. They are very popular among home gardeners in the Independence/Tickfaw area.
Botanically speaking, cucuzza is a gourd but I often hear it referred to as “cucuzza squash” or “Italian squash.” Both squash and gourds are in the Cucurbitaceae family. Cucuzza is a good replacement for squash in recipes and has a mild, sweet flavor. They are a pale green color and are unique because they grow to be 3-4 feet long, resembling a baseball bat!
The first challenge with growing cucuzza will be getting your hands on some seeds. The best place to find seeds is from someone you know who grows them. Most growers will hold seeds over from year to year and enjoy sharing. Other than that, I have seen them on websites sold as “cucuzzi” or “guinea bean.”
You should grow Cucuzza on a trellis. You don’t need anything fancy, a cow panel or chain link fence will do. The goal is to keep the fruit off the ground. Like cucumbers, cucuzza will grow on the ground but the fruit will develop yellow bellies and spots. Growing them on a trellis prevents this. Plant the seeds ¼ inch deep and 12-18 inches apart. Fertilize your cucuzza like you would squash or cucumbers. The LSU AgCenter Vegetable Planting Guide recommends 4 lbs of 8-8-8 per 100 foot row, or 300 square feet, at planting. Then, side dress with 1 lb of 33-0-0 per 100 foot row when the plants begin to run. Monitor the plants and side dress again if needed.
Harvest your cucuzza when they are young, pale green, and the skin is still tender. It is hard to say a specific length but once they hit 3+ feet long they will begin to mature. The skin will start to harden and the cucuzza may develop little bumps. Once they mature, they become seedy and will not work as well in recipes.
Peel the cucuzza with a vegetable peeler before you cook with them. Some folks recommend removing the seeds from the center, but if you harvest them at the right time, the young seeds are tender and edible.
Cucuzza make an interesting addition to your garden. The plants are vigorous, and a few plants will yield enough for you to share with your neighbors. Good luck!
Jessie Hoover is a County Agent with the LSU AgCenter covering horticulture in East Feliciana, West Feliciana, St. Helena, and Tangipahoa parishes. For more information on these or related topics contact Jessie at 225-683-3101 or visit the LSU AgCenter website.
Mr. Jimmy Dickerson, a Hillsdale, LA resident, holds his dried cucuzza he saved for seeds for the 2020 season.