No one really knows where alcayota comes from.
No, seriously, not even Wikipedia is sure if it's from Mexico or Peru, and that's a wide expanse of place to have come from. Last night at a friend's house we were eating marraqueta with a jam made from alcayota and postulating on where it might come from. I'm happy to report that my linguistic geekery is intact, and though some thought it might come from Asia, I was pretty sure it comes from the Americas, due to the similarities in its name to other things I'm pretty sure come from the Americas, like camote (sweet potato), and chayote (christophine, a weird squash with a little-shop-of-horrors mouth on one side).
In addition to not knowing where alcayota was from, we were also wondering if, in botanical terms, it was more like a squash or a melon. None of us are botanists, and this got us into a discussion of what the difference is between a squash and a melon (I was guessing the fact that melons can be eaten raw), and where their seeds are located and how they grow. This rapidly evolved into a monologue about my inadequately-warm compost when I lived on T street in Washington, DC, and how I had all these mysterious "volunteer" plants growing in there and so I actually transplanted one (and later moved it to Columbia heights), and I wondered for a long time if it would grow into a baby melon or a baby squash. In the end it turned into a canteloupe, which rotted before we had a chance to eat it.
Here in Chile, people buy alcayota, and bake it or boil it and scoop it out of its shell and let it rest with sugar (I'm dubious about how this affects the jam), and then cook it until it is a stringy, gloppy mess. Sound terrible? I thought so, too, until I finally tried a homemade alcayota jam with a touch of orange last night at some friends' house.
And suddenly, what used to be an insipid, disagreeable, unpleasantly-textured glop transformed itself into a caramelized, soft, slightly orange-scented sweet treat. I'm as surprised (and relieved) as the next person.
And for the record, it's a squash, not a melon. And those little pastries you buy on the side of the road near Curacaví that claim to be alcayota empanadas? They've got nothing on the real thing. The real, stringy thing.
And also for the record, I have come to the conclusion that people from the north or south of Chile have a mano de monja (literally, nun's hand, means good with confectionary or food in general) when it comes to jam. Poor me, from Brooklyn. What are we good at?
Oh right. Snark. Too bad one of alcayota's alternate names is shark fin melon, and not snark fin melon. We could have been onto something. I guess I'll leave the jam to the experts for now.