No holiday feels quite as American as Thanksgiving. It features food and family without any religious affiliation, and therefore is open to anyone. The menu is flexible—it’s all about giving thanks for the bounties of the year—but there are traditional Thanksgiving ideas and elements that would be odd to exclude: a stuffed, roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. But what is the historical origin of the Thanksgiving meal? And, more specifically, what is the history of pumpkin pie and when did people start eating pumpkin, which we normally think of as a member of the savory squash family, in the form of a sweet pie?
Tradition has it that the “First Thanksgiving” was a three-day feast held in 1621 between the pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony, and the local native tribe, the Wampanoags. A record survives written by a member of the pilgrim group, which describes the meal, consisting of all manner of local produce, including venison, squash, fruit, berries, lobster, clams, fish and pumpkin, and “besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.” We have inherited only the pumpkin and turkey aspects of this first feast, which was a celebration of the end of the harvest, and a show of friendship between the immigrant pilgrims and the locals (a friendship that, alas, would not last long).
Cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, as accompaniments to turkey, are likewise particularly American, as both cranberries and pumpkins are indigenous to North America (as are potatoes, though these are not specifically associated with Thanksgiving as the other ingredients are). Combining these three ingredients makes for the most North American of possible holiday meals. Add to this corn (on the cob or as corn bread), which is indigenous to North and South America, and you have a holiday meal that could not have been feasible in Europe prior to the colonization of America. The date of the holiday, the last Thursday in November, is likewise related to an American tradition—when natives like the Iroquois would celebrate the gathering of corn at the end of the season. According to a 1916 book about Iroquois food traditions, “Nearly every family prepares for this by baking a batch of old-fashioned corn bread.” In early America sugar was expensive, so the use of cranberries, corn and pumpkin, all of which have a natural sweetness when cooked, was a way to sweeten one’s meal at a lower cost.
To be specific, the large orange Halloween-y pumpkins are indigenous to the Americas (pumpkin seeds have been found in Mexico that date to 7000 BC), whereas other members of the squash family (sometimes referred to generally as “pumpkins”) may be found in recipes in Europe through the Middle Ages. But as Thanksgiving rolls around this year, I decided to try to make a traditional pumpkin pie that is in fact more traditional than what is most often associated with modern Thanksgivings. The modern pie combines with pie crust pureed pumpkin, condensed milk, nutmeg, clove, ginger, cinnamon, eggs, and sugar to taste. It is does not taste particularly pumpkin-y and, to be honest, it’s never been my favorite. So what other options did my research turn up that still qualify as pumpkin pie, and might be nearer kin to what our 17th Gentlewoman’s Companion, which must surely be a candidate for the first truly American cookbook, and it was quickly followed by Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook [sic.] in 1685, which had its own recipe. I decided to try out May’s 1685 recipe, to see if I might like it better than the modern equivalent.
Because the recipe is short (and written in a wonderfully old-fashioned language), we reproduce it here.
To make a Pumpion Pie.
Take a pound of pumpion and slice it, a handful of thyme, a little rosemary, and sweet marjoram stripped off the stalks, chops them small, then take cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and a few cloves all beaten, also ten eggs, and beat them, then mix them all together, with as much sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froise [a term for a pancake or omelette], after it is fried, let it stand till it is cold, then fill your pie in this manner. Take sliced apples sliced thin round ways, and lay a layer of the froise, and a layer of the apples with currants betwixt the layers. While your pie is sitted, put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it. When the pie is basked, take six yolks of eggs, some white wine or verjuyce [an acidic juice made from unriped grapes], and make century predecessors ate? Hannah Woolley published a recipe in her 1675 cookbook, The a caudle [a sweet alcoholic drink like eggnog] of this, but not too thick, but cup up the lid, put it in, and stir them well together whilst the eggs and pumpion be not perceived, and so serve it up.1
So original pumpkin pie was actually a heavily-spiced pumpkin and apple pie, spiked with booze and containing ten eggs plus six yolks. That is not so easy on the arteries, but I did like the idea of combining apple and pumpkin. The recipe is fun to read but not quite so easy to follow. Recipes prior to the 19th century did not regularly contain specified quantities, just the ingredients list and cooking method, so there was a good deal of guesswork involved. I wound up reducing the number of eggs from 16 to three, which seemed acceptable since May does not specify how much pumpkin to use (a 16 egg pie sounds like it could feed a small army!). I went easy on the spices, and considered the instructions on making a “froise” to be basically sauteeing the pumpkin meat to soften it prior to inserting it into the pie to bake.
The result was a pumpkin-apple-pie that I found much more interesting than the modern standard. It had layered flavors, thanks to the spices, and the butter and white wine “caudle” kept it very moist and unctuous. I would make it again, and not just for Thanksgiving. Consider it a more accurate, and truly American, rendition of the dessert of America’s favorite, and most traditional, holiday.