It seems that a ‘vegetable marrow’ is a peculiarly British concept. It is an ordinary thing of itself, being, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:
‘any of various kinds of squash or gourd which are chiefly the fruits of varieties of Cucurbita pepo, eaten as a vegetable …. esp. one of the larger round or cylindrical kinds.’
In other words, it is a mere variation on the theme of zucchini (courgette.) I have no idea how or why this very plain, inherently watery, vegetable became associated in name with the unctuous, fatty deliciousness of bone marrow, so this post was the result of my brief research into a possible explanation.
As a mildly confusing aside, the name of ‘vegetable marrow’ was also applied in the past to the avocado, which does at least have a buttery texture, and according to some, a ‘marrow-like taste’ (OED reference from 1866.) If there is any similarity in either appearance or taste between an avocado and a large type of squash which might have led to the overlap in names, then it has escaped me completely.
The first reference in English given in the Oxford English Dictionary to the vegetable marrow is in 1822, in a horticultural journal:
1822 J. Sabine in Trans. Hort. Soc. 2 255 (title) A description and account of the cultivation of a variety of gourd called vegetable marrow.
The following brief piece, written less than a decade later, may perhaps go some of the way to explaining the name. It is from A Description and History of Vegetable Substances: Used in the Arts, and in Domestic Economy: Timber Trees, Fruits, Volume 1 (London, 1830) by C. Knight.
Vegetable marrow (Cucurbita succada) is a very important gourd; and though it has been but lately introduced into this country, it is already cultivated to a considerable extent. It is straw coloured, of an oval or elongated shape, and when full grown attains the length of about nine inches. When very young, it eats well, fried in butter; when half grown, it may be cooked in a variety of ways, and is peculiarly soft and rich, having an oily and almost an animal flavour; when fully matured, it may be made into pies, for which purpose it is much superior to any of the other gourds. But it is in the intermediate or half grown state only, that it deserves its common appellation of vegetable marrow.
So, the writer opines that it has ‘an oily and almost an animal flavour.’ From my single experience of a decidedly bland sample of the vegetable marrow – or any other example of Cucurbita pepo which has crossed my plate – I would beg to disagree. ‘Animal flavour’ presumably equates to umami, and oily and umami are not taste experiences I personally associate with squash of any sort – although they have their virtues. Perhaps you disagree?
Any large essentially hollow or hollow-able vegetable is just made for stuffing (or ‘forcing,’ if you will.) The following recipe is interesting in that it would be a useful way of helping eke out a smallish serving of meat, but at the same time, preserving the momentary appearance of a lump of roast.
To Dress a Vegetable Marrow.
Have an ordinary sized vegetable marrow, skin and cut a small piece out of the side of it, with a tea-spoon take out the seeds gently, fill the space with force meat made of veal or fowl (see Force Meat), and fit in the piece again which you cut out. It may either be stewed in a rich sauce, or baked from an hour to an hour and a half. Serve with white sauce, with plenty of lemon pickle in it.
The Practice of Cookery and Pastry (Edinburgh, 1862) Mrs. I. Williamson
My next example is for a faux vegetarian dish. It adds nicely to our occasional theme of ‘mock’ dishes. The deceit in the case of this particular recipe would certainly be enhanced if the vegetable did indeed have an oily meaty taste.
Take a good-sized vegetable marrow, boil till tender. Plunge in cold water, and peel, taking out seeds and core, and the end in shape of a stopper. Make stuffing of sage, onion, and breadcrumb, with pepper and salt and one egg; put inside the marrow and replace stopper; dredge with flour, place on a greased tin and bake until nicely browned, basting well. Serve with brown gravy and apple sauce. Brown gravy, 2 oz. butter, 1 oz. flour. Fry flour in butter till it is a nice brown, add as much boiling water as will make it the thickness of cream.
London Monitor and New Era August 20, 1910
The dictionary of daily wants, by the editor of 'Enquire within upon everything' (London, 1861) by Robert Kemp Philip includes ten recipes for vegetable marrow, which would be most useful should you find yourself faced with a glut of gourds. I have selected three for you today.
Vegetable Marrow Marmalade.
Peel the marrows, and grate them. To six pounds of fruit, put six pounds of loaf sugar, and the juice and grated rinds of two lemons; boil it for half an hour over a moderate fire, stir it frequently, and pour it into small moulds.
Vegetable Marrow, Fried.
Take one marrow, one egg, and two ounces of bread crumbs. Peel and cut the marrow in slices, three-quarters of an inch thick; let it drain for a quarter of an hour, and season it on both sides with pepper and salt, then brush each slice with egg; sift the bread crumbs over, and fry the slices in batter till they attain a light brown on both sides; bake in a tin in the oven till done, and serve in a strainer, with crisped parsley, and brown sauce.
Vegetable Marrow and Celery Pie.
Cut three roots of celery into small pieces, with a proportionate quantity of vegetable marrow, and an onion, season with pepper and salt, add a dessertspoonful of tapioca, steeped in a quarter of a pint of cold water, and an ounce of butter; put all together into a pie dish, cover with paste, and bake it in a moderately hot oven.