How did pumpkin pie achieve its coveted place at the Thanksgiving dessert table? Did it always play the starring role following the tryptophan-riddled turkey? That depends on where you pulled up your chair. If you attended the original festivities held in 1621, it is doubtful that pumpkin pie was on the menu. Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe participated in a three-day festival where meals were most likely served out of doors. If pumpkin was part of the meal, it was neither served in pie form nor as a coffee beverage in a paper cup with an ill-fitting lid.
The pumpkin might have been boringly stewed or hollowed out and filled with spices, sweetened with honey and made creamy with a splash of milk. Regardless of the preparation, it was eons before the debut of game show television precluding the early settlers from winning an Amana oven in which to bake their pies. Coupled with the odds of Sears delivering the oven between the window of 1621 and 1670 was just like today, highly unlikely.
In 1685, Robert May’s cookbook, The Accomplisht Cook, featured a pumpkin pie riddled with spices, apples, currants and a generous splash of wine or juice from unripened grapes. Thank goodness Amelia Simmons arrived on the scene.
Amelia Simmons, presumed the first known American cookbook author, is credited with introducing a version of pumpkin pie in her 1796 cookbook, American Cookery by an American Orphan. Ms. Simmons’ pumpkin pudding baked in a crust most closely mirrors the version of pumpkin pie we bake today. It's quite possible that Amelia was also the one responsible for launching the infamous pumpkin spice ship when she teamed her 'pompkin' (a nod to the French word pom-pom) recipe with molasses, allspice and ginger.
Additionally, the Libby canning company introduced a line of canned pumpkin in 1929, eliminating the need for roasting and straining squash. To facilitate pie baking, in 1950, Libby’s began printing their classic pumpkin pie recipe on the labels of their canned purees. It was around the same time that spice king McCormick placed cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves under a single tin can roof. This one-stop spice mix quite possibly catapulted the runaway pumpkin spice train from the station. Pumpkin pie was now within easy reach, creating a standard recipe many bakers grew up with and still return to. A recipe as predictable as the Macy’s Day Parade in November.
For nearly twenty years, I sat in the kitchen on the last Thursday morning in November, half-watching Jessie prepare matzoh stuffing to fill an oversized turkey, half-watching Underdog fly over Herald Square. One can of Libby’s pumpkin and one can of Carnation evaporated milk waited patiently on the counter alongside a bag of pecans and a bottle of Dark Karo corn syrup. There was also a container of heavy cream waiting in the fridge that went into the pumpkin pie, although it was not written on the recipe. Always meaning to ask Jessie how much to add and when to add it, foolishly I never did. I assumed that Jessie would always be around to orchestrate Thanksgiving. That too was foolish.
Years later, woefully unprepared to accept the Thanksgiving mantle, I began thumbing through the cookbooks tucked into a cabinet high above my mother’s kitchen desk. James Beard’s The Fireside Cook Book and James Beard’s Menus For Entertaining were wedged alongside Jessie’s collection of well-worn books. A thin slip of paper with Jessie’s curliqued handwriting served as a bookmark on page 323 in Menus for Entertaining. It led me to James Beard’s menu for Thanksgiving dinner. Jessie’s notes were more shopping list than recipe, but like a good horoscope, I took it as a sign.
I studied the Thanksgiving menu, from hors d’oeuvres through dessert, then turned to The Fireside Cook Book for further investigation. In both instances, the pumpkin pie intrigued. Far from Jessie’s traditional recipe, evaporated milk took a backseat to heavy cream and Mr. Beard introduced ginger, cognac and mace to the mix. It is the pumpkin pie I have made every year since.
I know, I know. Jessie would have immediately dismissed the candied ginger and cognac, accused me of “fussin” with a recipe that was perfectly good the way it was. I can’t argue with that, but every now and again old traditions fade, new traditions are created. If you don’t believe me, just ask Underdog.