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.

 

‘Much Ado About Stuffing: A History’ – The Wall Street Journal

For a festival that celebrates amity, thankfulness and American values, Thanksgiving generates a lot of arguments, perhaps none more contentious than the issue of stuffing.

The disputes begin with the name, because some people refer to stuffing as “dressing.” Also, some insist that stuffing is only stuffing if it’s from inside the bird, while others can only abide cooking it separately and serving it as a side dish. Continue reading…

‘How America’s Writers Loved and Hated Thanksgiving’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Despite its young age—a mere 152 years—Thanksgiving has deep roots in the American psyche. It was already popular when President Lincoln first established the holiday on the fourth Thursday of every November. In 1842, two decades before Lincoln’s decree, Nathaniel Hawthorne declared Thanksgiving Day “a good old festival; and my wife and I have kept it with our hearts, and besides have made good cheer upon our turkey, and pudding, and pies, and custards.”

The bliss of home life combined with the culinary delights of turkey, pudding and pies also featured in the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe (“The Old New England Thanksgiving”) and Louisa May Alcott (“An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving”). Such paeans were in perfect accord with the original intentions behind the holiday. Sarah Hale, the journalist who led the campaign to have Thanksgiving accorded federal status, wrote in 1868: “The enjoyments are social, the feastings are domestic, therefore this annual festival is really the exponent of family happiness and household piety. Continue reading…

‘How the Turkey Became the Thanksgiving Bird’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: WARNER BROS. TELEVISION/EVERETT COLLECTION

Photo: WARNER BROS. TELEVISION/EVERETT COLLECTION

This Thanksgiving, let’s spare a thought for the roughly 40 million turkeys whose destiny is inextricably linked to the fourth Thursday in November.

As a symbol of national pride and family values, the humble turkey has few rivals. But how did it edge out the competition to become the quintessential Thanksgiving dish?

Success was neither immediate nor assured. It isn’t clear whether turkey made it onto the menu at the original 1621 harvest-celebration meal shared among the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Wild turkeys were plentiful; the colonist leader William Bradford noted in his diary that “there was a great store” of them. But the only surviving letter about that meal refers to four men who went “a-fowling,” which could have meant anything from ducks to swans.

The tradition of Congress issuing a national Thanksgiving proclamation began in 1777, at around the same time that the Great Seal of the U.S. was being designed, and the turkey wasn’t a serious contender to be the symbol of America. The birds considered included the rooster, the dove and the eagle. In the end, the Great Seal committee accepted Charles Thomson’s 1782 suggestion of the bald eagle.

But two years later, Benjamin Franklin found himself wondering whether they had made a mistake: “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…he is generally poor and often very lousy.” By contrast, Franklin wrote, the turkey was a “much more respectable bird…though a little vain and silly, a Bird of courage.”

Continue reading…