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A Brief History of Pumpkin Pie in America

Today’s post is written by science librarian and culinary specialist Alison Kelly. She has provided her expertise in a number of Inside Adams blog posts related to food history and cooking such as Early American Beer, and Early Mixology Books.

In A Description of New Netherland,  Adriaen van der Donck, an early landowner and the first lawyer in New Netherland, presented a wonderfully detailed description of the natural and cultural worlds of that Dutch colony and its environs in 1655. His observations on  squashes and pumpkins, which take up much of the chapter on “Vegetables”, include the comment that  “the English, who are fond of tasty food, like pumpkins very much and use them also in pies, and know how to make a beverage from them.”

Cucurbita pepo, from Icones plantarum medico-oeconomico-technologicarum cum earum fructus ususque descriptione =Abbildungen aller medizinisch-ökonomisch-technologischen Gewächse mit der Beschreibung ihres Gebrauches und Nutzens. By Ferdinand Bernhard Vietz. 1804
Biodiversity Heritage Library
https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/6465#/summary
(contributed by the Missouri Botanical Garden)

The “English” referred to in van der Donck’s description were the English colonists in New England, where pumpkins were a staple of the diet. New Englanders brewed pumpkin ale, they added dried pumpkin to flips, and they stewed pumpkin as a vegetable.  However, it was their pumpkin pie that, over the following centuries, went on to become an edible icon.

Pie plates, T.W.Root’s Hardware Catalogue, 1890.
//lccn.loc.gov/unk82015916

Pumpkin is native to North America;  it was brought to Europe as part of the “Columbian Exchange”. But, as van der Donck noted, the pumpkins growing in the New World were generally more plentiful, larger and tastier than the pumpkins produced in 17th century England or France:  “pumpkins grow with little or no cultivating. They are so sweet and dry that for the purpose of preparing them water and vinegar are added before stewing them in the same way as apples…” .

Although pumpkin was cultivated—and pies filled with pumpkin were being made—in England at this time, they generally contained layers of sliced (sometimes fried) pumpkin, combined with sugar, spices and apple slices and baked between two crusts.  This type of pie appears to have been made by some of the early colonists as well—but, by 1796, when Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, the first cookbook written by an American and published in America, appeared, pumpkin pie had evolved into a familiar form that we would recognize today.

In American Cookery, Amelia Simmons included two recipes for “pompkin” pudding. This pudding, baked in a pie crust, contained a filling which was not built from sliced pumpkin, but more like more like a custard:  Amelia Simmons’ pumpkin  pies, like today’s, were made with stewed and strained pumpkin, eggs, sugar, cream or milk,  and sometimes the addition of  molasses. Flavoring was added with some of the spices popular in the colonies at that time—ginger, mace and/or nutmeg and allspice.

This basic format continued to be embraced by American cooks. Mary Randolph, in The Virginia Housewife (1824), baked a pumpkin pie along the same lines—with the addition of “a wine glass of brandy.” Her Pumpkin Pudding employs only a bottom crust, with some decorative scraps of pastry laid across the top:

Harper’s Bazar, Thanksgiving, 1892
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress
//www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2015646538/

Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry, rub it through a sieve, mix with the pulp six eggs quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of brandy and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a little dry; put a paste round the edges and in the bottom of a shallow dish or plate, pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste, twist them and lay them across the top and bake it nicely.

Similarly, Eliza Leslie, the American author of many popular 19th century cookbooks, offered a recipe for   “pumpkin pudding” in Miss Leslie’s Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats (1827). This pudding is what we would today call a one-crust or open-face pie, employing a bottom lining of “puff paste” rather than the “common paste” used for her double-crusted pies.  It was most likely cooked in a deep pie plate or even a pudding pan instead of a shallow pie plate.

In a relatively short time, pumpkin pie had become a cultural icon and a requirement for every Thanksgiving table. Odes to the pie were published in newspapers and ladies’ magazines, agricultural journals and children’s books. A poem, by an author identified only as MCS and titled The Pumpkin Pie, published in the Massachusetts Ploughman and New England Journal of Agriculture, (Nov. 30, 1850) concludes with this inspirational stanza:

But here beneath bright Freedom’s sky
        A land that valor won,
 We’ll sing our famous Pumpkin Pie,
     From morn till setting sun!

Lydia Maria Child, Flowers for children. For children from four to six years old. 1844.
Rare Book & Special Collections, Library of Congress
//www.loc.gov/item/2009529648/

Another poem celebrating the pumpkin pie, and still familiar today, is Lydia Maria Child’s “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day” also known as “Over the River and Through the Wood,”  which first appeared in 1844.

Perhaps partly because of its iconic status, pumpkin pie appears to have changed very little over the following 100 years, as illustrated in this recipe from a cookbook published in Iowa in 1876:

New England Pumpkin Pie
Mrs. A. Y. Rawson

Peel and cut your pumpkin into small pieces and put into a kettle with a very little water; cook from six to eight hours, stirring frequently to prevent burning. When done, rub through a colander. One quart of pumpkin, five pints of rich milk, four eggs, three cups of sugar, one scant teaspoon of ginger and 4 tsp of cinnamon.

Typical of early charity cookbooks, there’s no hand-holding  offered to the reader of this recipe, nor details on the crust, the oven temperature, or the steps in preparation, as it was assumed that the cook would know how to go about the project.

from The Grocer’s Encyclopedia, 1911

The reign of the pumpkin pie continued on into the 20th century. In his Grocer’s Encyclopedia of 1918, a magnificent compilation of information on every kind of food available in American markets at the turn of the 20th century,  Artemus Ward says of the pumpkin:

…the most highly prized of the squash family, grown in many varieties and varying in size from that of a large orange to a weight of fifty or more pounds. It is occasionally cooked as a vegetable, but its principle use is in the form of ‘pumpkin pies.’

Despite various trendy takes on the original—pumpkin  chiffon pie, praline pumpkin pie, pineapple pumpkin pie, pumpkin whoopee pies, pumpkin ice cream pie, pumpkin Alaska pie—the essential pumpkin pie remained true to its origins: mashed and cooked pumpkin, milk or cream, eggs, sugar and spices, and a pastry crust.  But, at the same time, almost everything about pumpkin pie has changed radically since Amelia Simmons’ recipes were published.

Salem News (Salem, Ohio) Jan. 10, 1911

One obvious change occurred at around the turn of the 19th century, when the rapid expansion of the canning industry brought canned pumpkin to every market.  Many cooks were no longer willing—or able—to “stew pumpkin all day” and quickly embraced the canned product for its convenience. By the 1920s, canned pumpkin was a staple, along with canned cranberry sauce, in every grocer’s seasonal advertising.

Gathering in the pumpkins in the Yakima Valley, Washington (B.W. Kilburn) ca 1904. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95503311/

Publications from the early years of the 20th century provide ample evidence that the canned pumpkin industry was already booming.  In 1905, an article by W. F. McClure on “Horticulture: the Pumpkin Pie Industry” in Ohio Farmer, described the state of the industry there:

In northeastern Ohio, large quantities of pumpkins are raised for canning purposes…where is located one of the largest canneries for pumpkins on the American continent. More than 2,000 tons of this product are often used at a cannery in one season…a field that will yield 20 tons to the acre is considered excellent. ..the price ranging in different years from $2.50 to $5 per ton. A ton of pumpkins will make about 1200 pounds when canned.

Beckert’s Garden, Field and flower seeds Catalogue, 1908
National Agricultural Library Special Collections’ Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Catalog Collection on the Internet Archive

Commercially canned pumpkin was not only convenient, but it was also generally safer than home-canned pumpkin. In “To Live Well and Cheaply,” (Grocer’s Magazine, 1913), John A. Lee, chairman of the National Canned Foods Week committee, writes that “the modern cannery is more sanitary than a dainty woman’s kitchen.”  And in the same publication, Clyde Wilson gives his thoughts “On the Canning of Pumpkin:”

The canner of food has brought no finer art than the preserving of pumpkin in convenient tins… The canning of pumpkin is an enterprise of greater magnitude than most people imagine. One packer had on his grounds at one time last season 4,000 tons of this gorgeous fruit – a novel sight.

At the same time as commercially canned pumpkin was radically changing home pumpkin-pie making, even more convenient and time-saving options were becoming available. By the first years of the 20th century, many consumers had the option of choosing from an array of standardized commercially baked goods, including breads, cakes and pies, as industrialization brought new milling and baking equipment, and, eventually, electrically powered machinery and ovens.

Milford Mail (Milford, Iowa) November 18 ,1909 –

City newspapers of the late 1800s describe large bakeries or “pie-factories” which turned out thousands of pies for the supply of restaurants, hotels, boarding-houses, smaller bakeries, and private families.  Finished pies from these bakeries were loaded into pie-wagons, and later, trucks, to be delivered throughout the city.

Pumpkin pies were made seasonally, and the advent of the pumpkin pie-making season was often announced in print.  “The Pie and its Devotees: The Season for Pumpkin and Cranberry at Hand,” reads a notice in The New York Times on September 14, 1895. Pumpkin pie season continued to be deemed newsworthy into the 20th century.  One such headline from the New York Herald Tribune of Sept. 17, 1937 informs readers that   “Pumpkin Pie Season Opens Tomorrow When 7,000 Pies Go on Sale in 31 Retail Stores.”

By the early 1960s, Thanksgiving advertising featured not only canned pumpkin pie mix and bakery pies, but ready-to-serve frozen pies. Convenient and affordable, frozen pies caught on quickly—and they continue to be popular today.

Bakers Review October, 1920

Magazines and newspaper food sections  promoted frozen pies as “failure-proof.”  A column in the Bucks County Courier Times (Nov. 12, 1968) promised they would deliver “the goodness and aroma of traditional home-baked pies without preliminary effort.  Not only tremendous time-savers, frozen pies assure the ultimate in freshness, flavor and convenience.”  To  dress up the pie, and in a nod to its New England heritage,  it’s finished with a layer of Pilgrim’s Whipped Ginger Topping.

A dressed-up frozen pumpkin pie
(pumpkin pie, skeeze CreativeCommons)

Even with the wide availability, popularity and convenience of both frozen and bakery pies, many people continued to bake their own pumpkin pies.  For some late 20th century cooks, that may have meant stewing a pie pumpkin, but many baby boomers grew up associating pumpkin pie with the recipe on the back of the pumpkin can, the one with evaporated milk, eggs, canned pumpkin, a prebaked crust—and pumpkin pie spice.

Spice cabinet (Carol M. Highsmith), Prints & Photographs, Library of Congress
//www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016632181/

Pumpkin pie spice had become ubiquitous by the middle of the 20th century. What was in these packages of pie spice? Despite countless variations, the mix usually includes some combination of ginger, nutmeg, mace, cloves, cinnamon or allspice  – all of which we might recognize as the same spices widely used in colonial American cooking,  although they were probably measured out  more generously than they are today.  Closing the circle with a reference to the now almost mythical pie of colonial days, an advertisement in an Ironwood, Michigan paper from 1930 promotes  “T&T Mixed Pumpkin Pie Spice: pure spices blended from an old New England recipe.”

Pumpkin Pie, USDA, Agricultural Research Service Image Gallery

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