With the US celebrating Thanksgiving this Thursday, I thought I might take the opportunity to extol my favourite Thanksgiving Day food: pumpkin pie. As far as I’m concerned, Thanksgiving isn’t complete without a sliver – however small (or large!) – of pumpkin pie, eaten plain or topped with a dollop of whipped cream. There are, of course, a multitude of variations for pumpkin pie, but the one I’ve always known and loved is the recipe on the back of the Libby’s tin (yes, you can buy pumpkin – already cooked and mashed – in a tin. Such a time saver!). The resulting pie is gorgeously custardy, sophisticatedly spicy and, yes, decidedly orange. I’ve made it a few times for friends and family here in Ireland and have been extremely disappointed at the negative reception it has received. If you didn’t grow up with it, it seems, you don’t understand it… pumpkin? In a pie? for dessert? Impossible!
Be that as it may, I plan to eat some pumpkin pie this Thursday in celebration, fully acknowledging that it, like most of the dishes gracing the average, twenty-first century Thanksgiving Day table, is a far cry from what the Pilgrims ate at that first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621. The ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving meal I grew up with involved a huge turkey, roasted and filled with bread stuffing, and served with gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, and maybe a few green beans for colour. Dessert was pumpkin and/or apple pie with whipped cream, though my nana also sometimes requested a New England speciality: Indian pudding – a maize based custard pudding with raisins. As if that doesn’t sound overwhelming-ly calorific to start with, it seems that the original Thanksgiving lasted three days, not just one afternoon, and we’re not talking leftover turkey and stuffing sandwiches here. Having just survived a horrible year in their new settlement, the Pilgrims, much reduced in number, were celebrating a successful, if meager, harvest, and did so over the course of several days. Chances are though, they didn’t have any bread stuffing or potatoes, and the cranberries would have been unsweetened, as there was no sugar to be had. There was undoubtedly a lot of meat, including turkeys, to feast on, as well as fish, but, it seems, pies were pretty much out of the question, and not just because of the lack of sugar. With no ovens, and only open fires, to cook on, pastry wasn’t all that feasible. Pumpkin, while undeniably part of the first Thanksgiving, probably came stewed. (None for me, thanks!) See here and here for some of the history.
Apparently, pumpkin pie as we now know it, was an invention of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cooks. There are some weird and wonderful recipes out there: this one sounds similar to the one I’m used to, but doesn’t have any cinnamon or nutmeg; this one has a full cup of molasses (treacle) in it; and this one makes enough filling for five pies! Lest you think the taste for pumpkin pie is a twentieth- or twenty-first century development, these recipes are all from 1894. And Wikipedia led me to an intriguing (borderline parodic) encomium to the humble pumpkin pie by John Greenleaf Whittier. Published in 1850, ‘The Pumpkin’ praises its titular fruit in the following terms:
Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! The old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin, – our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!
Moreover, the poem queries, ‘What moistens the lip and brightens the ye? / What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?’ Whittier obviously loved pumpkin pie as much as I do!