Does your town have an annual festival dedicated to its favorite squash? Mine does. It's the Bywater Mirliton Festival, an autumn event held in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans with music, food, and — of course — mirlitons, the green, bumpy, pear-shaped squash that grows on vines around the city.
You might know the mirliton by another name (hint: the plant is native to Mexico), but nowhere else is the squash cooked and eaten quite the same way as it is in New Orleans. Here's how this funny-looking vegetable became the unofficial squash of the city.
Mirliton is better known as chayote, and records show it was grown in New Orleans from as early as 1867. According to mirliton enthusiast Lance Hill, its early popularity was likely related to the close connection the city had with the Caribbean, which began the long history of backyard mirliton vines in New Orleans that continues to this day. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wiped out many of these backyard vines, but community groups are working to bring back the traditional Louisiana mirliton, which is included in Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste.
Also known as the "vegetable pear," the mirliton is actually a member of the gourd family. In New Orleans, they are often served pickled, stuffed with shrimp, or fried, and sometimes raw in salads. Autumn is when you'll find them at the farmers market, or sold at roadside produce stands.
So what does the mirliton taste like? Food writer Sara Roahen describes it beautifully in her book, Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table:
A raw mirliton crunches like a potato; it tastes like very green cucumber, and a little like zucchini. Sautéed, it tastes like starchy apples; boiled and fried, its translucent green flesh suggests what a honeydew melon would look, feel, and taste like if honeydew melon were a vegetable.
If you happen to be in New Orleans in the fall and want to seek out this unique vegetable, there is one last thing you'll need to know: how to pronounce "mirliton"! Mel-lee-tawn and mel-uh-tawn seem to be the most common pronunciations, but if you panic and go with the phonetic mer-leh-tun, you'll probably be politely pointed in the right direction anyway.
Mirliton Recipes to Try
What are your favorite ways to eat mirlitons (chayote)?