No food is as closely associated with autumn in the United States as the pumpkin. This is the time of year when we get the opportunity to eat pumpkin-flavored everything. There’s the now practically mandatory fall drink… the pumpkin spice latte. There’s also pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin soup, pumpkin cake, pumpkin pasta, and more. But, the most famous of the pumpkin foods by far is also the oldest and most traditional… the pumpkin pie.
It is the quintessential holiday dessert for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Topped with a dollop of whipped cream, pumpkin pie is often considered as an important part of the meal as the turkey. And, as it turns out, pumpkin is absolutely American.
The pumpkin is native to Central America, where it was first farmed by humans around 5,500 B.C. The ancient Americans loved it, and apparently with good reason. It is so delicious that the first European explorers to the region brought pumpkins back to Europe with them on the very earliest expeditions. The first mention of a pumpkin in European writing appears in 1536, and Europeans embraced the pumpkin as if it had always been their own. They began to be a common and regularly grown crop in England and France in the mid-1500’s, and were called pumpions (England) and pompons (France). The name was derived in both languages from the French word for the round part of a tassel. When they were eventually exported back to the Americas with the English colonists who went to New England in the early 1600’s, the name change to pumpkin in a few generations, to fit the new American vernacular.
While they were still in Europe, before being brought back to America, the English became the first nation that was recorded as using pumpkins in pies. England had a highly developed and specialize pie-making industry which had been going on for centuries, even in the 1500’s. Medieval pies were pastries that were stuffed with both sweet and savory fillings. When pumpkins became popular in England, they were quickly included as pie fillings.
While many European countries used pumpkins in their cooking after they were brought back from the New World, none were quite as enthusiastic about all things pumpkin as the English. Therefore, when the Pilgrims sailed to New England in 1620, it is highly likely they were as familiar with pumpkins as the Native Americans they met on Plymouth’s shores. In fact, those Natives, who were part of the Wampanoag tribe, were instrumental in helping the new colonists survive their first harsh New England winter, and pumpkins, which are an easily preserved food, were probably among the foods the natives shared with the colonists during this time.
Pumpkins were almost assuredly part of the “first Thanksgiving.” This celebration was held after that first harsh winter ended and the colonists brought in their first harvest on American shores. Because the natives helped the colonists learn to plant and grow crops in American soil, the surviving colonists from the Mayflower invited 90 of the local Wampanoag to their harvest celebration, which was a testament to their ability to live and make it in this new land. Pumpkin was easily grown in the area, and the Wampanoag already grew it themselves, so the likelihood of some pumpkin dish being part of the first Thanksgiving is high.
As New England flourished, the colonists turned more toward familiar foods from England that were imported on an increasingly regular schedule of incoming ships, and began growing pears, apples, quince, and more. There was a time, when New England was in its infancy, but already self-sustaining, that the colonists turned away from the pumpkin, and more toward other foods from home. They never forgot the pumpkin entirely, though.
Early versions of pumpkin pie in both Europe and North America varied considerably, and few resembled anything we would recognize as a “traditional” pumpkin pie. Sixteenth and 17th century cookbooks often recommended boiling the pumpkin in milk before putting it in a flour crust. Sometimes, the pumpkin was layered with apples in the pie. Other times, it was seasoned with savory herbs, such as rosemary, marjoram, and thyme. There wasn’t even always a crust. Early New England settlers sometimes used a recipe that simply called for hollowing out a pumpkin, filling it with spiced and/or sweetened milk, and boiling it before drinking right from the pumpkin gourd. The mushy insides of the pumpkin gourd could be scooped out with a spoon, if the colonist was lucky enough to own one.
However, by the early 1700’s, the traditional pumpkin pie we know today was a part of American culture, beginning in New England. Thanksgiving was first celebrated as a regular holiday around this time, but it was only celebrated as a regional holiday in New England; the other colonies didn’t adopt Thanksgiving until much later. The typical sweetened, spiced pumpkin puree baked in a flour crust was a regional New England favorite, and was already closely associated with Thanksgiving by 1705. That was the year Colchester, Connecticut postponed its Thanksgiving celebration for a week because there was a temporary shortage of molasses to make the pumpkin pies for the feast. By 1796, an American cookbook was published containing a pumpkin pie recipe nearly identical to the pie we eat today.
In fact, pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving were so closely associated with New England culture that the southern states protested it when Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. The southerners saw it as an attempt to push northern culture and values on the south. An editorial in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper specifically called out pumpkin pie in its protest of nationalizing Thanksgiving as a holiday, saying the event was just an excuse for New Englanders to gorge themselves on pumpkin pie and roast turkey.
Yet, after the Civil War, the entire nation could not deny the universal appeal of pumpkin pie. All of the states adopted Thanksgiving, and its requisite pumpkin pie along with it. Recipes for pumpkin pie began appearing in national women’s magazines, and the famous Libby canned pumpkin most of us use in our pies was introduced by the Libby meat canning company in Chicago in 1929. This was a blessing for housewives everywhere who were responsible for making the holiday feast, as the canned pumpkin eliminated the need to roast and strain a pumpkin before making the pie. The pie became basically a three-step process to assemble: the crust, the seasonings, and the pumpkin from the can, with only baking required afterward.
While it has gone through many iterations over the centuries, pumpkin pie has been a favorite of Europeans and the ones who colonized America from the time they first discovered the Native Americans cultivating it. The pumpkin pie on your plate has a long and storied history. Take a moment to appreciate that the next time you savor a bite.