When you think of Thanksgiving, the pumpkin pie (aside from the turkey) first comes to mind. In fact, when else do you make a pumpkin pie even though canned pumpkin is available all year around?
In Medieval times, squash, gourds, and other fruits were stewed with sugar, spices, and cream wrapped in pastry. During the Colombian Exchange in the 16th century “new world” foods that included pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, and corn were introduced into European cookery. Pumpkins became a favorite almost immediately whereas most other foods took several generations to be totally accepted. This was more than likely due to their similarity to “old world” gourds and squashes and they were easy to cultivate. They were called pompions, after French “pompon.”
Pumpkins were first cultivated in Central America around 5,500 B.C. The Northeastern Indians used squash more than other Indians in early America and did favor pumpkin the most. They baked them by putting them in the embers of a fire, then moistened them with maple syrup or honey or some type of fat and then turned it into a soup. It was likely that pumpkin was on the first Thanksgiving table in some form. By the 1700’s, it became a popular item to celebrate the holiday. In 1705, the town of Colchester, Connecticut postponed the holiday for a week due to a molasses shortage to make the pies.
Pumpkins have been in American history for centuries and recipes for its preparation began appearing in cookbooks. The first known American cookbook was American Cookery by Amelia Simmons in 1796 that included a recipe for “pompkin” pie. She made two versions. Both had pumpkin, ginger, and eggs. One used cream and sugar with Old World spices, mace and nutmeg; the other used milk and molasses with New World allspice.
Later in 1805, a recipe for pumpkin pie appeared in the Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple by Mrs. Hannah Glasse.
“Take the pumpkin and peel the rind off, then stew it till is quite soft and put thereto one pint of pumpkin, one pint of milk, one glass of malaga wine one glass of rose-water, if you like, seven eggs, half a pound of fresh butter, one small nutmeg, and sugar and salt to your taste:”
By the 1800’s, pumpkin pie was a necessity at most Thanksgiving celebrations. If you have ever heard the famous poem about Thanksgiving by Lydia Maria Child in 1842:
“Over the river and through the wood, to grandfather’s house we go” ends with “Hurrah for the pumpkin pie”.
In 1929, Libby’s meat-canning industry made pumpkin preparation easier by offering its famous canned pumpkin with its traditional recipe on the label. My mother would have appreciated the Libby’s version. I remember her talking about making her first pumpkin pie and neglecting to strain the stringy pulp from the pumpkin itself. Needless to say it was a disaster. Next time you open a can, please think kindly of her and in her day, there may not have been canned pumpkin.
The only problem is the sugar content found in pies – as for my pumpkin disaster, I forgot the sugar one year and it was awful. But who is counting sugar grams on Thanksgiving? No one. (for the few that are – 1 serving has 253 cals, 3 grams of fiber, 32 grams of carbohydrate and about 19.7 grams of sugar (5 tsp). Pumpkin is also loaded wtih vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene (a powerful antioxidant).
Eating in America: A History, Waverly Root & Richard de Rochemont William Morrow, New York 1976, (p. 41).
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Mrs. Hannah Glasse, 1805 .
Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, Linda Civitello, 2nd Edition, Wiley