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Hooray for the Pumpkin Pie!
The traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner dessert is that big wedge of pumpkin pie with a lot of whipped cream on top. Few of our festival foods can claim deeper American roots than those orange pumpkins which were first cultivated in Central America around 5500 BC and were one of the earliest foods the first European explorers brought back from their visits to the New World. They were first mentioned in Europe in 1436 and soon were grown regularly in England where they were called “pumpions” and were found by the English colonists in America in the areas used by native Americans. The American colonists called them pumpkins. They were used in pie making in England and continued also by the colonists.
Those pies differed a lot from the familiar Libby canned pumpkin we use today. Some colonial cooks preferred boiling the hollowed out pumpkin filled with milk and roasted in hot ashes. The contents were scooped out and strained before filling a pie crust. A variety of spices were added but they were not the ones we use today. Baking followed and the pie was ready to eat.
By the early 18th century pumpkin pie was favored as a Thanksgiving dessert. Those pies were sweetened by molasses added to the custard as white sugar was often unavailable. Mentions of pumpkin pie are found in the literature and poems of the 19th century. The most familiar one is the poem written in 1842 by Julia Marie Childs: “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go….” It ends with a shout “Hurra for the pumpkin pie!”
Pumpkin pie was considered a northern dish by the southerners when President Lincoln announced that the nation would celebrate an official Thanksgiving Day holiday on Nov. 26, 1863. It was to give thanks for the victory at Gettysburg. In time the southern states embraced it as the nation healed and the 4th Thursday of November was established as a holiday. Pumpkin pie was enjoyed without any political claims.
During the depression years of the 1930s President Roosevelt changed it to the third Thursday in an attempt to extend the shopping days before Christmas. He changed his mind, however, when Congress favored returning the holiday to the 4th Thursday and so it has remained.
The recipe changed when the Libby Meat Packing Company of Chicago introduced a line of canned pumpkin that soon became the standard ingredient for making those pies. This replaced all the labor involved in roasting and straining needed to make the custard. Try it and you will soon see why that can has replaced the raw pumpkin. Today, we open a can, add sugar, eggs, spices and milk or cream, bake, then cool, and it is ready for a big dollop of whipped cream or Cool Whip, then enjoy. You, too, will be shouting “Hooray for the pumpkin pie!”
Contributed by Marilyn Goodwin