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History of : Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkins are something to be celebrated. Like potatoes, they were brought back from ‘the New World’ in the sixteenth century and began their long rise to fame in Western cuisine. Pumpkin pie is still eaten at American Thanksgivings as a remembrance of settlers gratitude for the native foods of America.

A Dutch illustration of first nation people cultivating pumpkins (The artist, Theodore de Bry, is obviously confused because pumpkins do not grow in trees) 1588

A French Discovery. Or was it?

The first reference to pumpkins was made in 1536. However, at this point they were not known as pumpkins, but “pumpions”. They were supposedly named after the French “pompon” or “pompom” for their dumpy, rotund shape. You may think this is because the shape of a pumpkin is much like the fluffy pompoms that adorn our winter hats today, but in actuality the term comes from the Greek name for a melon: πέπων (pepōn).

Alternatively, the moniker 'pumpkin' is also likely to come from the Wampanoag people's word 'pôhpukun' which translates literally as to 'grow forth round'. This is also a very likely etymology, as the English word 'squash' comes from the Narrangansett word 'askútasquash'.

Bye Bye to a Nasty Pie

So how did this newly discovered squash become such a staple of American desserts today? Well, the English have always been big on pies, baking anything from pigeon to apple into them. Pumpkins were no exception. By the time the Mayflower sailed in 1620 pumpkin pie was already a common food in Britain. The pumpkin had been brought back by earlier explorers, much like Sir Walter Rally, who returned with the humble potato. Thus, the new colonists had, ironically, an adept knowledge of the pumpkin when they settled in its native land.

However, pumpkin pie was very different in the 1600s, and by that, I mean not particularly appetizing. Contemporary recipes called for pumpkin boiled in milk to be used as the filling, or, even more bizarrely, some recipes directed cooks to hollow out the pumpkin and fill it with sweetened milk; so the pumpkin was the pie... (very meta). Needless to say, pumpkin pie was very far from what we know it as today. Because of pumpkins lacklustre serving options, the colonists used more appetizing European fruits, such as apples, pears and quinces once they had settled in America.

A girl, repulsed by an original pumpkin pie

A Life Saving Food

Despite the settlers initial aversion to pumpkin, the pilgrims soon came to appreciate it when it saved their lives. The settlers had landed in America in November, as they had planned, just in time to plant seeds before winter set in. However, the winters in North America were far colder than the winters in Europe and set in far earlier than those aboard the Mayflower had expected; as such the pilgrims were unable to plant seeds to be harvested the following year. In the cold, hard winters of New England they suffered, losing around half of all the settlers who had sailed from England, to scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Only 53 members of the original party survived.

Fortunately, the Wampanoags, led by Ousamequin, came to the rescue in the Spring. They approached the new settlers, hoping to trade their knowledge of the land for weapons to defend themselves from neighbouring nations. The Wampanoags taught the settlers how to plant maize and pumpkin and how to make it grow using fish as fertilizer. These fruits would provide the much needed vitamins that the settlers were lacking.

In the Autumn the long awaited fruit, including pumpkins, was ready to be harvested. The settlers chose to throw a three day long celebration of their success. They did not initially invite the Wampanoags who had helped them in farming the land. However, in celebration of their achievements the settlers fired muskets into the air which drew the attention of 100 Wampanoags. They arrived thinking they would have to fight, but instead on realising it was a celebration, chose to join in, even supplying three deer for the occasion.

Very biased image of the first Thanksgiving (it is impossible to find a representative one...)

This meeting between the first nation peoples and the colonisers, and the bonds they formed (mostly over pumpkins) is what Thanksgiving is all about. So naturally pumpkin had to feature in Thanksgiving traditions today, alongside other indigenous foods, such as turkey and cranberries.

Fighting it Out and Writing it Down

Pumpkin pie as we all know it now (flaky, creamy, custardy and pleasantly spiced) didn’t really come into being until the end of the 1700s, when it was definitively published in the first American cookbook, 'American Cookery, by an American Orphan' by Amelia Simmons.

Nonetheless, pumpkin pie was only eaten in New England, where the original Thanksgiving took place and continued to remain a regional delicacy until Thanksgiving was made a national celebration much later.

The original, pared back recipe for pumpkin pie

Thanksgiving was finally inaugurated as a national holiday after the American Civil War was won by the Union. The honour was instated by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to some push back from the Americans based in the Southern states who were initially opposed to the Northern Yankee's dessert. The North-South divide was evident and one Confederate complained that Thanksgiving was:

"an annual custom of that people, heretofore celebrated with devout oblations to themselves of pumpkin pie and roast turkey.”

Nonetheless, since it’s humble inception, pumpkin pie's popularity has only grown; it has truly become a national dish for America, one which history cleverly charts the evolving and often gruesome history of the country itself.

Sources and further reading


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