…For pottage and puddings
And custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips
are common supplies
We have pumpkins at morning
And pumpkins at noon
If it were not for pumpkins
We should be undoon…
From an American Pilgrim Verse, ca. 1630
…But see, in our open clearings, how golden the melons lie;
Enrich them with sweets and spices, and give us the pumpkin-pie!
From “The First Thanksgiving Day, A.D. 1622,”
a ballad by Margaret J. Preston, 1887
Few foods that make up our traditional holiday fare can claim deeper American roots than the pumpkin (cucurbita pepo). Thought to have been first cultivated in Central America around 5,500 BCE, pumpkins had spread north up the eastern seaboard into Canada by the time Europeans began exploring the North American continent in the 15th century. With its thick shell and solid flesh, pumpkins were a sustaining dietary staple for Native Americans as they could be stored through the winter and preserved by slicing and drying them. They also were baked, boiled, stewed, and roasted over a fire for everyday consumption.
Versatile and easy to cultivate, New World pumpkins were among the first botanical specimens European explorers brought back to Europe. They are mentioned in European works beginning in 1536 and within a few decades were grown regularly in England and France, where they were called “pumpions” and “pompions,” respectively, in reference to their rounded form. By the 17th century, pumpkins, whether baked, fried, mashed, roasted, or stewed, featured prominently in English and French cuisine, with myriad recipes, both sweet and savory, appearing in the most influential English and French cookery books of the day. A favorite preparation was to scoop out their seeds, fill the cavity with sweetened, spiced milk, and cook them near a fire. Pumpkins were also used to make puddings, pancakes, pies, soups, stews, and tarts.
When the Pilgrims set sail for America on the Mayflower in 1620, landing on the shores of Cape Cod, they were most likely already familiar with the pumpkins cultivated by the Wampanoag, the Native Americans who helped them survive their first year at Plymouth Colony. From the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims learned how to grow life-sustaining crops, including pumpkins and corn, and how to weather the brutal climate of coastal Massachusetts. A year later, despite losing nearly half of their group to disease and scarcity brought on by a harsh winter, the Pilgrims, together with the Wampanoag, gave thanks for a bountiful autumn harvest with a three-day celebration feast. On the table would have been local root vegetables, like carrots and onions, dried fruits and nuts, waterfowl, wild turkey, venison, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, and pumpkin and squash. Lacking butter, lard, wheat flour, and a dry oven for pastry crust, the closest the Pilgrims would have come to preparing pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving and during the early years of the colony, would have entailed, according to some accounts, hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey, and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes.
Meanwhile, back in 17th-century England and France, pumpkin pie continued to evolve, taking a number of forms. François Pierre La Varenne (1615–1678), in his Le Cuisinier François, 1651, the revolutionary cookbook that laid the foundation of classic French cuisine and was translated into English as The French Cook in 1653, instructed cooks when making their “pompion” pie to prepare a simple pudding and bake it in a pastry crust:
…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.
In the influential English compilation, The Accomplisht Cook, 1653, by Robert May (1588-ca. 1664), the recipe for pumpkin pie takes on a completely different character and complexity:
Take a pound of pumpion and slice it, a handful of thyme, a little rosemary, and sweet marjoram stripped off the stalks, chop them small, then take cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and a few cloves all beaten, also ten eggs, and beat them, then mix and beat them all together, with as much sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froise, after it is fried, let it stand till it is cold, then fill your pie after this manner. Take sliced apples sliced thin round ways, and lay a layer of the froise, and a layer of apples, with currants betwixt the layers. While your pie is fitted, put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it. When the pie is baked, take six yolks of eggs, some white-wine or verjuyce, and make a caudle of this, but not too thick, cut up the lid, put it in, and stir them well together whilst the eggs and pumpion be not perceived, and so serve it up.
These varying recipes for pumpkin pie, along with the English and French cookbooks that contained them, made their way to colonial America as English settlers continued to colonize New England throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. By the time Amelia Simmons of Connecticut (dates unknown), published her American Cookery in 1796—the first cookbook published in America and the first to meld together Northern European cooking and baking methods with American-sourced ingredients—colonial American cuisine had come a long way since the Pilgrim’s first thanksgiving. Pumpkins were now a dietary staple and a potent symbol of American plenty with American cooks employing them not only in puddings and stews, but also in beer, breads, johnnycakes, porridges, butter, syrups, and last but not least, the bone fide pie in a pastry crust.
Amelia Simmons did not invent the pumpkin pie we now know and love today, but her cookbook contained the earliest American recipe for what has become a Thanksgiving Day classic. Her two recipes for “Pompkin” pie called for similar ingredients to what we use today:
No. 1. One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 [all butter] or 3 [butter and lard], and with a dough spur, cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.
No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust
So when did pumpkin pie become the quintessential dessert of the Thanksgiving Day holiday? By the early 18th century, giving thanks for a bountiful autumn harvest with an annual celebratory feast, as the Pilgrims did, had become an important regional holiday in colonial New England and pumpkin pie had earned its iconic place at the table. Indeed, the dish had become so traditional in colonial Connecticut that, in 1705, a temporary shortage of molasses forced the town of Colchester to postpone its Thanksgiving from the first to the second week in November, until the essential ingredient for the pie could be obtained.
The historian Tad Tuleja notes, in his chapter on “Pumpkins,” in Rooted in America: Foodlore of Popular Fruits and Vegtables (1999):
Popular literature of the nineteenth century gives ample evidence that pumpkin pie was considered, in many circles, an indispensable feature of Thanksgiving…Women’s magazines carried recipes for it, and numerous memoirs also attest to an association with the supposedly New England holiday. Sara Josepha Hale, whose tireless promotion of the feast day led to its nationalization by President Lincoln [in 1863], noted in her 1827 novel, Northwood that pumpkin pies were “an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.” Without exaggeration, a recent historian of the holiday claims that turkey and cranberry sauce notwithstanding, pumpkin pies constituted “the first culinary Thanksgiving tradition.”
We’re happy to carry on the tradition here at the Bakehouse. Our Classic Pumpkin Pie may look wholly different than the pumpkin stews and custards of yore, but it’s just the thing that adorned our Thanksgiving tables as children. We deck out our pumpkin filling with Indonesian cinnamon, ginger, clove, Michigan honey, Guernsey Dairy cream and a cozy touch of Muscovado brown sugar to round it out. It’s a rich, creamy, and decadent celebration of a very storied gourd!
After a long, established career as a Ph.D. art history scholar and art museum curator, Lee, a Michigan native, came to the Bakehouse in 2017 eager to pursue her passion for artisanal baking and to apply her love of history, research, writing, and editing in a new exciting arena. Her first turn at the Bakehouse was as a day pastry baker. She then moved on to retail sales in the Bakeshop, followed by joining the Marketing Team and becoming the Bakehouse’s designated culinary historian. In addition to her retail sales and marketing work, she’s a member of the Bakehouse’s Grain Commission, co-author and editor of the Bakehouse's series of cookbooklets, and a regular contributor to the BAKE! Blog and Zingerman’s Newsletter, where she explores the culinary, cultural, and social history and evolution of the Bakehouse’s artisan baked goods.