November 2021 Produce Parable
Adam Calder

Sweet pumpkin pie decorated with whipped cream and cinnamon with a slice taken out

Soon, the aroma of baking pumpkin pie will drift out from ovens all across the United States. These pies are often eagerly anticipated at the end of a Thanksgiving feast, and then forgotten for the rest of the year. Why do Americans eat pumpkin primarily as pie, and also usually only around Thanksgiving?

This story begins with the humble pumpkin, around eight to ten thousand years ago in the Mexican highlands of Oaxaca. This is where the oldest orange field pumpkin seeds have been found by archeologists. There are no wild pumpkins, as pumpkins were cultivated from wild gourds that grew in the moist soils of riverbanks and creeks.

Ancient pumpkins were three to four inches around, and had very hard shells. The flesh of these early pumpkins was thin and bitter, so they were likely gathered and planted to eat their seeds. Over the centuries, plants were selected and bred to produce more, better tasting flesh and bigger seeds.

By the year 2,500 BCE, Native Americans in southwest North America grew pumpkins, and by around 1,200 BCE so too did the people living in the east. By the time colonial settlers from England arrived in the late 15th century, Native Americans all over the continent were growing pumpkins.

Native Americans roasted pumpkins on hot cinders, boiled them to make sauce and dried them to make jerky-like strips or flour. In keeping with European cooking traditions, colonial settlers boiled pumpkins to make a thick “porrage” or pudding, which was very similar in texture to apple butter.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no record of pumpkins or pumpkin pie being served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. The two written records of the event list a menu of Indian corn, barley, fowl, deer, parsnip, carrots, turnips, onions, melons, cucumbers, radishes, beets, cabbage and colewort (a brassica like kale). Not one word is mentioned of pumpkins.

The first pumpkin “pies” were whole pumpkins with their tops cut off and the seeds scooped out. The pumpkin was then filled with a savory porridge of stewed pumpkin, bread crumbs, apples and eggs. The top was placed back on the pumpkin and the whole thing was baked in an oven. A sweet pumpkin pie of this era would have been a pumpkin stuffed with only apples and baked whole.

The first printed sweet pumpkin pie recipe appears in 1796 in the cookbook American Cookery, and is similar to the modern pies enjoyed today:

One quart stewed and strained pumpkin, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg, ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and cheque it, and baked in dishes 3 quarters of an hour.

This pie likely had the consistency of cheesecake, and was unusual in that it was intended for lavish, high society consumption. For the most part, by this time in American history pumpkins were food for poor farmers and their families. It was easily planted, grew well in a variety of soils, and produced large volumes of food that stored and traveled well. These qualities led to the pumpkin being

widely grown all over New England, and then across the United States as the country grew and the settlers expanded.

As the nation grew and industrialized, young generations left farms for urban life. Pumpkins reminded them of fond childhood memories on the farm. To hold onto that nostalgia, pumpkin pie began appearing at Thanksgiving meals. That tradition grew and spread, and to this day you likely find a pumpkin pie capping off the feast no matter what part of the country you live in.

A New England writer from the early 1800’s wrote the following passage in a Thanksgiving poem, and any who enjoy pumpkin pie will appreciate his sentiment:

     And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
     Swells in my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
     That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
     And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
     And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky,
    Golden-tinted and fair as thy own pumpkin pie!