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Exploring Pumpkin Pie: History and Recipes

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Pumpkin pie is a quintessential Thanksgiving treat, but how did it become so widespread?

Pumpkin pie is a quintessential Thanksgiving treat, but how did it become so widespread?

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West, From North and South, come the pilgrim and guest, When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board The old broken links of affection restored, When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more, And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before. What moistens the lips and what brightens the eye? What calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?

— John Greenleaf Whittier, American Quaker, poet, and advocate of the abolition of slavery

Pumpkin Pie Is Not a Pilgrim Invention

Food historians believe that pumpkins are indigenous to North America; in fact, archaeologists exploring the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico have found pumpkin seeds that date to 5,000 B.C.

In the late 14th century Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence region and reported finding large bitter melons, or “pepons”. The French changed the name to “pompom” which was modified yet again by the English who called it “pumpion.”

The 1621 pilgrims at Plymouth Rock were the first permanent European settlement in New England. The historical feast in which they (the ones who had not died from exposure or scurvy) gave thanks probably included a pumpkin dish, but I’ll bet a year’s salary that it wasn’t a pumpkin pie (with or without whipped cream).

The Native Americans brought pumpkins as gifts and taught those first settlers how to use them. It would be several decades until pumpkin was baked in a crust.

We Can Thank the French

In 1651, Francois Pierre la Varenne wrote a cookbook entitled Le Vrai Cuisinier Francois (The True French Cook). It was translated and published in England in 1653. Here is his recipe for pumpkin baked in pastry (or as he titled it, "Tourte of pumpkin"):

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.

Not to be outdone, Hannah Woolley (an English author famous for her writings on household management) published Gentlewoman’s Companion in 1670. Mrs. Woolley recommended this approach for baking a pumpion (pumpkin) pie:

Take a Pumpion, pare it, and cut it in thin slices, dip it in beaten Eggs and Herbs shred small, and fry it till it be enough, then lay it into a Pie with Butter, Raisins, Currans, Sugar and Sack, and in the bottom some sharp Apples; when it is baked, butter it and serve it in.

(By the way, “sack” is a fortified wine such as dry sherry.)

By the early 1700s, pumpkin pie had become a ubiquitous feature on the Thanksgiving table. In fact, in 1705 the Connecticut town of Colchester postponed their annual celebration by one week because there was not enough molasses available for the baking of pumpkin pies.

Nate Barksdale, writing for History.com, tells us that the pumpkin pie even became an issue in the debate over slavery. He explains:

Many of the staunchest abolitionists were from New England, and their favorite dessert soon found mention in novels and poems. Sarah Josepha Hale, who worked for decades to have Thanksgiving proclaimed a national holiday, featured the pie in her 1827 anti-slavery novel “Northwood,” describing a Thanksgiving table laden with desserts of every name and description—“yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche.”

You might recall that it was Abraham Lincoln who set Thanksgiving as a National holiday. Even that seemingly innocent decision was viewed as Yankees imposing their values and traditions on people of the south.

After the Civil War, Thanksgiving (and with it pumpkin pie) became a part of the fabric of our country. More and more cookbooks and women’s periodicals included recipes for the baked squash dessert.

In 1928, Libby’s canning company introduced a line of canned pumpkin, dramatically reducing the amount of work required to make a pie for one’s family. And that brings us up to today.

Let's start baking!

Perfect Pumpkin Pie

Perfect Pumpkin Pie

Extra-Smooth PERFECT Pumpkin Pie

If you have been reading my articles for a while, it should be no surprise to you that I would go to Kenji for the ultimate pumpkin pie recipe. The food lab at SeriousEats deconstructs every recipe to understand the science behind food ingredients and how they work together. They never disappoint. And their recipe for a traditional baked pumpkin pie is absolutely the best!

Pumpkin Pecan Pie

Pumpkin Pecan Pie

Pumpkin Pecan Pie

Do you love pumpkin pie? But, you also love pecan pie? One slice of each is too much, even on Thanksgiving Day. So, here's how to resolve the dilemma—combine the two into one beautiful slice!

“Cut my pie into four pieces. I don’t think I could eat eight”

— Yogi Berra

Pumpkin Cream Cheese Pie

Pumpkin Cream Cheese Pie

Pumpkin Cream Cheese Pie

You already know how much I love a baked pumpkin pie. Creamy-dreamy pumpkin custard in a flaky crust. How to apply a little Emeril bam? Why not swirl in some cream cheese? Here's how. Thanks to the Pillsbury company for this recipe.

Mini Pumpkin Pies

Mini Pumpkin Pies

Mini Pumpkin Pies

My brother and my Dad used to tease my Mom when she was serving up pie for dessert. They would count the "bumps" on the edge of the pie (the crimping on the crust) and boy, there would be misery if they did not both get the exact same size slice. (My poor Mom, and can still see her rolling her eyes). This little mini pies would have solved that problem.

Pumpkin Silk Pie

Pumpkin Silk Pie

Pumpkin Silk Pie

Here's an alternative to the traditional baked pumpkin pie, with a creamy cool filling and gingersnap crumb crust.

Chocolate Swirl Pumpkin Pie

Chocolate Swirl Pumpkin Pie

Chocolate Swirl Pumpkin Pie

I have not tried this recipe, but it's definitely going into my file for the holidays. I love chocolate, and I love pumpkin. The two swirled together look Heavenly.

Impossible Pumpkin Pie

Impossible Pumpkin Pie

Impossible Pumpkin Pie

Do you remember the "impossible coconut pie" that was so popular years ago? And then there was an impossible lemon pie. Now, a baking genius has come up with an impossible pumpkin pie. You might be wondering "what is the impossible part?" The filling is mixed and poured into a pie pan and as it bakes it forms its own crust. Doesn't that sound great?

Pumpkin Pie Pops

Pumpkin Pie Pops

Pumpkin Pie Pops

Aren't these just too cute? All the flavor of pumpkin pie on a lollipop stick, and then drizzled with maple-flavored frosting.

Apple-Butter Pumpkin Pie

Apple-Butter Pumpkin Pie

Apple-Butter Pumpkin Pie

This pie simply shouts Autumn; sweet pumpkin and spicy apple butter combine to make a unique pie your family will love. Don't forget to add the spicy streusel topping.

Pumpkin Pie With Caramel-Pecan Topping

Pumpkin Pie With Caramel-Pecan Topping

Pumpkin Pie With Caramel-Pecan Topping

The traditional pumpkin pie just got a serious upgrade with warm homemade caramel drizzle. Now the only problem is to decide whether you want whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.

Vegan Pumpkin Pie

Vegan Pumpkin Pie

Vegan Pumpkin Pie

This is the pie I made for my younger daughter when she opted for a vegan diet (no eggs or dairy). Even though she is no longer vegan, I've kept the recipe because it's easy, and it tastes great!

Ingredients

  • 1 can (16 ounces) pureed pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 package (10–12 ounces) soft tofu, processed in a blender until smooth (Don't use "low fat" tofu.)
  • 1 9-inch pie shell

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425˚F.
  2. Cream the pumpkin and sugar together. Add salt, spices, and blended tofu; mix thoroughly.
  3. Pour mixture into pie shell and bake for 15 minutes. Lower heat to 350˚F and bake for another 40 minutes.
  4. Chill and serve.

© 2018 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 04, 2018:

Thanks Lawrence. If you like pumpkin pie, I hope you will give one of these a try. If you don't perhaps I've convinced you?

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 04, 2018:

Linda

These pictures are stunning, just like the pies probably are. They look delicious.

Lawrence

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 19, 2018:

Kari, I wrote this article for Billybuc (who loves pumpkin pie almost to excess). I'm going to try the silk pie soon. But honestly, I think my favorite would be the pops (because you get more crust that way).

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 19, 2018:

I don't really like pumpkin pie, but that pumpkin silk pie looks interesting enough to set my mouth watering. I will have to try it.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 17, 2018:

Rochelle, I like the way you think. Chocolate is also "healthy" because it comes from a bean, right?

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 17, 2018:

Don't laugh -- I read them at least twice. My belly feeds my soul as much as any deed.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on January 17, 2018:

Pumpkin pie has always been my favorite. What an interesting history it has! Eating it often can be justified because “it’s a vegetable, not a dessert “. I think my family would be disappointed if I varied my traditional recipes, but your options look very tempting— especially the pecan and cream cheese.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 17, 2018:

Eric, you move to the head of the class because you have shown that you read the entire article and didn't simply jump down to the recipes (LOL).

Let me know when the pumpkin pecan pie is ready. I'll drop by for a slice.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 17, 2018:

Wait a second here; you mention two of my favorites, Hannah Woolley and Yogi Berra in the same article. Yes a great English teacher said that if I read Woolley I would be wiser.

I am going to make the pecan one for sure. Thanks

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 17, 2018:

Bill that's just too funny. No wonder you've been working so hard down there on the farm. How many quail eggs does it take to make one pie?

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 17, 2018:

Thanks Mary. That pie with the apple butter does sound intriguing, doesn't it. I appreciate your comments always.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 17, 2018:

Here's my problem with pumpkin pie: I like it too much, and Bev likes it more than I do. It's amazing we both don't weigh 300 pounds. In fact,we are currently on a break from pumpkin pie for fear we won't be able to get out of bed soon. LOL Thanks for the recipes.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 17, 2018:

I like the many ways you showed here of making pumpkin pie. I am not a fan of the usual pie but with the other things you showed, I can love it. The one with spicy apple looks delicious.