A Short but Tasty History of Pumpkin Pie

An odyssey from colonial staple to political emblem to holiday standby

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Pumpkin pie may not compete with its apple-filled rival for most of the year, but on Thanksgiving, it’s the iconic dessert, despite often resembling a giant helping of baby food. As a slice of Americana, the pie has a history as complicated as the country itself.

The pumpkin’s ancestors were ancient gourds that left Asia some 60 million years ago. Known botanically as Cucurbitaceae, the plant family slowly spread to the African, Australian and American continents, laying down roots (and vines) to become such familiar garden goodies as the melon, the cucumber and the squash.

Scientists have traced Cucurbita pepo, the founding fruit of pumpkin pie, to seeds 8,000 to 10,000 years old in the Guilá Naquitz Cave in Mexico. The site is believed to have the earliest evidence of domesticated crops in North America. Though these early Mexican varieties were smaller and more bitter than the pumpkins we know, early Americans ate or otherwise used almost every part of them. By the time Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, pumpkins and squashes had spread north to Canada.

In 1796, Amelia Simmons of Connecticut published “American Cookery,” believed to be the first American cookbook to rely on native-grown ingredients. Despite their artery-clogging richness, the ingredients for her two “pompkin” dessert recipes—stewed pumpkin, eggs, sugar, cream, spices and dough—wouldn’t be out of place today.

Then came pumpkins’ biggest transformation: into a sort of political emblem. According to Cindy Ott, author of “Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon,” pumpkin pie became a symbol of the cultural war between North and South. For Northerners, particularly abolitionists, the virtually self-growing pumpkin was the antithesis of the slave-grown plantation crop. Antislavery novelists celebrated pumpkin pie, and the abolitionist Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), who successfully campaigned to establish Thanksgiving, described the dish as “indispensible” for “a good and true Yankee” version of the holiday. In the South, “cartoons and illustrations…associated blacks with pumpkins as a form of derision,” Ms. Ott told the media website Mic in 2015.

Today, pumpkin pie shares the holiday stage with pumpkin-spice lattes and other flavored concoctions—a craze that has now spread as far as China. Not bad for a humble gourd with global ambitions.

 

A History of the Unloved Electoral College

Opponents have ranged from John Adams to Richard Nixon. Why has the system survived?

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

The 2016 election results caused plenty of bitterness—not the least of which had to do with the Electoral College. Donald Trump won the presidency a year ago this week but lost the popular vote—something that has happened a handful of times in the republic’s history and twice in the past two decades. In a December press conference, President Barack Obama declared the system to be past its sell-by date: “It’s a carry-over from an earlier vision of how our federal government was going to work.”

What were the Founding Fathers thinking? At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, they created a unique system for choosing the president. Each state got a number of electors based on the total of its U.S. senators (two) and U.S. representatives (as set by census). Each state legislature could decide the method of picking electors, but if the electors’ vote was inconclusive, the choice would be sent to the House of Representatives. “The original idea,” wrote Federal Election Commission official William C. Kimberling in 1992, “was for the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of origin or political party.”

The system didn’t last long without repairs, precipitated by the crisis of the 1800 election. Electors could vote for two names for president, with the runner-up becoming vice president. With the Federalist Party’s John Adams defeated, it came down to the candidates of the Democratic-Republican party. But because of a procedural error, Thomas Jefferson tied with his running-mate Aaron Burr. Awkwardly, the tiebreaking vote went to the House of Representatives, which the Federalists still controlled. It took 36 ballots for Jefferson to win his majority.

It’s not surprising that four years later the 12th Amendment was ratified. Among other changes, it separated the vote for president and vice president into two processes.

The next change to the electoral college, as it came to be known, happened without constitutional changes. One by one, the states began making their presidential picks by popular vote, which the electors were then supposed to echo. The move led to the winner-take-all system for each state that all but Maine and Nebraska practice today.

This was not what the Founding Fathers had intended. In the 1820s, the aging James Madison suggested various ideas for reform, such as having each congressional district vote for an elector, or even having each member of the electoral college offer two choices for president (neither would become vice president). Congress briefly considered abolishing the college completely, with President Andrew Jackson declaring in 1829 that the more “agents” there were to do the will of the people, the more likely it was that their will would be frustrated.

But nothing more happened.

A serious attempt at abolition died in the Senate in 1934. In 1969, after segregationist George Wallace got 46 electoral votes and raised the possibility that neither major-party candidate would win a majority of electors, President Richard Nixon tried to abolish the electoral system—with the aid of his defeated rival, Hubert Humphrey. But Southern and small-state senators stopped the plan with a filibuster.

Why has reform failed so often? As many have pointed out, the electoral college was an attempt to balance the power of more populous states with that of more rural ones, to balance the needs of the nation with those of the states. Many have called the solution imperfect, but perhaps it’s a good match for our remarkable but imperfect democracy.

The Power of Pamphlets: A Brief History

As the Reformation passes a milestone, a look at a key weapon of change

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The Reformation began on Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, as legend has it, nailed his “95 Theses” to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Whatever he actually did—he may have just attached the papers to the door or delivered them to clerical authorities—Luther was protesting Catholics’ sale of “indulgences” to give sinners at least partial absolution. The protest immediately went viral, to use a modern term, thanks to the new “social media” of the day—the printed pamphlet.

The development of the printing press around 1440 had set the stage: In the famous words of the German historian Bernd Moeller, “Without printing, no Reformation.” But the pamphlet deserves particular recognition. Unlike books, pamphlets were perfect for the mass market: easy to print and therefore cheap to buy.

By the mid-16th century, the authorities in France, Germany and England were fighting a rear-guard action to ban pamphlets. Despite various edicts in 1523, ’53, ’66 and ’89, the pamphlet flourished—and gained some highly placed authors. Although she professed disdain for the medium, Queen Elizabeth I contributed speeches to a 1586 pamphlet that justified her decision to execute Mary, Queen of Scots. Two years later, the Spanish printed a slew of propaganda pamphlets that tried to turn King Philip II’s failed invasion attempt of England into a qualified success.

By the 17th century, virulent “pamphlet wars” accompanied every major religious and political controversy in Europe. By then, pamphleteers needed an exceptionally strong voice to be heard above the din—something even harder to achieve once newspapers and periodicals joined the battle for readers as the century matured.

What is a pamphlet, anyway? One popular source says 80 pages; Unesco puts it as five to 48 pages. Shortness is a pamphlet’s strength. Though the work did little to ease Ireland’s poverty, the satirist Jonathan Swift opened English eyes to the problem with his 3,500-word mock pamphlet of 1729, “A Modest Proposal,” which argued that the best way to alleviate hunger was for the Irish to rear their children as food.

Half a century later, Thomas Paine took less than 50 pages to inspire the American Revolution with his “Common Sense” of 1776. A guillotine killed Marie Antoinette in 1793, but often-anonymous pamphlets had assassinated her character first in a campaign that portrayed her as a sex-crazed monster.

Pamphlets could also save reputations—such as that of Col. Alfred Dreyfus, the French-Jewish army officer falsely convicted in 1894 of spying for Germany. After realizing that Dreyfus was a victim of anti-Semitism, the writer Émile Zola published in 1898, first in a newspaper and then as a pamphlet, a 4,000-word open letter, “J’accuse…!” which blamed the French establishment for a vast coverup. His cry, “Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it,” was ultimately proved right; Dreyfus won a full exoneration in 1906.

What Zola achieved for religious equality, Martin Luther King Jr. did for the civil-rights movement with his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written after his arrest for civil disobedience. Eventually published in many forms, including a pamphlet, the 1963 letter of about 7,000 words contains the famous line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The words crystallized the importance of the struggle and made tangible King’s campaign of nonviolent protest.

Not everyone has lost their belief in pamphlet power. Today, the best-selling “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” clocks in at about 130 pages, but the author, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, said he’s comfortable with calling it a long political pamphlet.