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.

 

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.

A Brief History of Protest in Sports

From angry gladiators to Suffragette sabotage

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Sports and protest often go together: As soon as someone makes a call, somebody else is disputing it. But in recent weeks, the really big clashes have happened off the playing fields, as President Donald Trump and others criticized football players kneeling during the national anthem. Such mixing of sports, politics and protest has ancient roots—on the part of both spectators and players.

An early protest by a player comes down to us in “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by the Roman historian Suetonius (69-130 A.D.). An unnamed gladiator once refused to fight in front of the Emperor Caligula. Then, the gladiator, seeing he would die anyway, grabbed his trident and killed his would-be victors.

But in the ancient world, spectators, not players, were mostly the ones to express their feelings. At Rome’s Circus Maximus in 190 A.D., a young woman followed by a group of children rushed forward during the races and accused an official of hoarding grain. A crowd gathered, threatened the home of Emperor Commodus and succeeded in getting him to fire the official.

Another mass sporting protest wasn’t so civil. In sixth-century Constantinople—the ancestor of the city now known as Istanbul—tensions reached a breaking point between the Blues and Greens, political factions that took their names from colors worn by charioteers. When one side lost at the city’s Hippodrome in 532, a crowd started a mass insurrection known as the Nika Riot. Tens of thousands died in a city whose population was about half a million, and Emperor Justinian never again allowed chariot racing at the Hippodrome.

Perhaps with these rebellions in mind, rulers of the Middle Ages kept sports largely aristocratic, with pageantry in and peasants out. Sometimes, though, a game could be a form of protest. During the heyday of England’s Puritan government in the mid-17th century, some towns rebelled by staging soccer games, which were anathema to Puritans.

Sports regained its full status as a mass spectator event at the end of the 19th century. In 1906 Athens, 10 years after the first modern Olympics, Peter O’Connor, an Irish track-and-field athlete, protested British rule by refusing to accept his silver medal under the British flag. Instead, O’Connor scaled the flagpole and attached an Irish one.

Back home, British sports lovers faced a challenge when the Suffragettes began sabotaging men-only sporting activities. This culminated in a tragedy: During the 1913 Epsom Races outside London, protester Emily Davison ran onto the course, reached for the bridle of King George V’s horse and was trampled to death.

Racism fueled one of the most famous Olympics protests, at the Mexico City games in 1968. American runner Tommie Smith had won the 200-meter race; John Carlos had won the bronze. Wearing no shoes, to symbolize black poverty, the two men raised fists in a black-power salute.

In sports, though, there are many winning plays, and that goes for ways to protest iniquity as well. In 1973, champion tennis player Billie Jean King and some other players were unhappy about the vastly unequal prize money between men and women. Ignored and furious, the women left the circuit and started their own organizing body, the Women’s Tennis Association. The net gains are history.