Monday, November 21, 2011

Meatless Monday: As American As Pumpkin Pie

Once you learn the history of pumpkin pie in America, you may come to wonder, as I do, just why we don’t use “pumpkin” rather than “apple” in the phrase “as American as apple pie.” Pumpkins are indigenous to the New World and were clearly part of the first Thanksgiving feast declared by Gov. William Bradford and held in Plymouth Colony in 1621. Apples, on the other hand, came from the Old World; the Pilgrims planted apple trees soon after they arrived, but only the crabapple was native to North America.

The Pilgrims were probably not familiar with the pumpkin when they landed on the shores of what is now Massachusetts in the 1600s. But they soon learned of the many ways the Native Americans put the pumpkin to good use, including roasting of long strips of pumpkin on the open fire for eating, and drying strips of pumpkin for weaving into mats. Early on the colonists recognized the value of this fruit. Edward Johnson of Boston wrote in 1630,“Let no man make a jest at Pumpkins, for with this fruit the Lord was pleased to feed his people to their good content, till Corne and Cattell were increased."

They would soon invent uses of their own, such as stewed pumpkin. Pumpkin pie most likely evolved from the colonial custom of slicing off the pumpkin top, removing the seeds, filling the insides with milk, spices, and honey, and then baking the pumpkin in hot ashes. There was neither pie crust nor bread at these early celebrations; the first wheat harvest and flour were years away.

Thanksgiving became an American tradition. George Washington formally declared the day a national holiday in 1789. By the early 1800s, pumpkin pie (or at least a cousin to what we know as pumpkin pie) played a starring role in the day’s menu. Pumpkin pie had by now become a custard of pureed pumpkin, “rich milk,” eggs, and spices, baked in one crust until the filling had set. 

American poet John Greenleaf Whittier was so fond of pumpkin pie that he composed a long poem extolling its virtues. Here is an excerpt from The Pumpkin (1850):

… Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West, 
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest … 

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye? 
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? …

… Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better 
E'er smoked from an oven or circled a platter! 
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine, 
Brighter eyes never watched o'er its baking, than thine! 
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express, 
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less, 
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below, 
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow, 
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky 
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie! 

In his encyclopedic tome American Cookery, published in 1972, James Beard prefaced his classic recipe for pumpkin pie with these words: “In the eighteenth century this, like all one-crust pies, was called a pudding. Yankees preferred the recipe made with pumpkin, while Southerners preferred sweet potatoes. Spices were not included until clipper ships made them a more common commodity, and molasses or sorghum was used as part or all of the sweetening.” Beard's modern recipe offers a variation, the use of evaporated milk as an alternative to light cream. This substitution was not yet an option in the 1926 when the Springvale National Bank in Maine published its complimentary pamphlet What to Cook and How to Cook It, which contained three recipes for pumpkin pie, all using fresh milk.

Recipe tinkering did not end with the use of evaporated milk. The most recent tweaking of the recipe came about with the need to provide a vegan option. The most common solution involves the substitution of silken tofu for the cream and the eggs. 

For more pumpkin facts, please pay a visit to my blog post on the pumpkin from late October last year.

And for the back-story on how Thanksgiving came to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, check out this link.

One great thing about pumpkin pie is that it has just one crust, so it’s a little harder to eat too much. So enjoy a slice of a time-honored tradition. Just go easy on the whipped cream! Have fun, and have a great holiday!

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal  health and the health of our planet.”

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