The season is upon us where every coffee shop begins to sell “pumpkin spice” whatnots and most major grocery stores begin to stock up on the orange-brown goo filled pastry.
Ah 1800s Thanksgiving… Nothing like a pumpkin pie to get your mind off the Napoleonic wars.
The pumpkin has been a part of the North American diet for thousands of years, and was introduced into the European diet shortly after Columbus made landfall and brought back the wonders of the Americas. Native Americans had been boiling and stewing the squash for millenia, using it as a successful ward against things like scurvy and malnutrition. Depending on the source, pepon, later called pompon, later called pompion, later still to be called pumpion, was introduced into the European diet between 1536 and 1651. By 1651, the “Tourte de Pompion” was included into Francois Pierre La Varenne cookbook that achieved a great deal of publicity. La Varenne wrote that you should, “Boile it with good milk, pass it through a straining pan very thick, and mix it with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds; let all be very thin. Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it. After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve.”
The humble pumpkin slowly gained popularity as it spread through the European subcontinent, gathering dozens of methods of preparation. The pompion pie of the 1600s looked little like the pumpkin pies of today, one recipe called for baking the pumpkin strips with raisins, currans and sack (honestly don’t know what that is, all research for “sack spice” or “spice sack” only results in pictures of burlap) at which point the chef would put the whole shebang in a pie crust on top of a thick layer of apples. Some New England recipes simply asked the people to hollow out a pumpkin, fill the gourd with apples and spices, then bake the amalgam of dust and goop in the ashes of a fireplace.
In 1796, the official recipe for pumpkin pie (closest to the stuff we mostly eat now) was written in The American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (who literally called herself “an American orphan” in the headline of the book)
Amelia Simmons, An American Orphan, wrote it down. If you see something that looks like an “f” in this, it’s really just an “s”. Thif if juft the way they wrote back then.
After 1796, the pumpkin pie simply got refined. There were moments where people doubted the subtle power of the orange squash, but the moments passed. For example, after the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday, Southern reporters criticized the North’s strange ritualism; with one reporter saying, “This is an annual custom of that people, heretofore celebrated with devout oblations to themselves of pumpkin pie and roast turkey.” (That is correct, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a holiday. It was a response to the Union Victory at Gettysburg, making the “distinctly American holiday” distinctly pro-Union) In the end, the canning revolution took hold and instant “pumpkin pie in a can” recipes began to spring up in 1929 that dramatically cut down the preparation time for the pies, further cementing the place of the pumpkin pie as the king of the Thanksgiving desert bar.
This one is about Lincoln making Thanksgiving: