Because we are a nation of immigrants, most of the foods we eat can trace their roots back to Europe, Asia, or Africa. But there is one thing we can proudly lay claim to – pumpkin pie.
Pumpkin and its squash relatives (butternut, hubbard, zucchini, etc.) were one of the major food discoveries to come from the New World. Since the seeds were easily collected stored, these vegetables quickly spread across the globe. Most are used in savory dishes but somehow pumpkin became synonymous with a sweet custard pie.
The first true recipe for our sweet, spicy pie was recorded and published in 1796 by Amelia Simmons. She is credited as the person who first wrote down the recipes for several uniquely American dishes and published them in America. Her 47-page book includes such classics as ‘Indian bread” or what we now call cornbread, a reference to using “emptins,” a precursor of baking soda, and relish made from American cranberries. But the star of the cookbook from our point of view was the following recipe for “Pompkin [Pie]” (transcribed exactly from the original):
“One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.”
These ingredients are more or less the same as what we now make for our Thanksgiving dinner. However the resulting pie (called a pudding then) would look a bit different. Today’s pumpkin is pre-cooked and pureed. Amelia’s pumpkin may have been pre-cooked but it was probably just mashed. The molasses was the most common form of sweetener at that time but was eventually replaced once pos-Revolutionary cooks had ready access to the sugar grown in the Caribbean. Allspice was a uniquely American spice (native to the West Indies) which was an economical substitute from the more expensive cinnamon and nutmeg we use today.
And then there’s the crust. Immediately following the pumpkin pie recipe, Amelia gives the reader nine versions of “pastes for tarts.” Most are some combination of flour, butter, and eggs but one used suet, the early version of the white shortening we use today. Most of the recipes assumed you were making a half a dozen or more pies at a time but here’s one that will sound familiar.
“Rub one pound of butter into one pound of flour, whip 2 whites and add with cold water and one yolk; make into paste, roll it in six or seven time one pound of butter, flowring it each roll. This is good for any small thing.”
I would guess this will create enough two or more of our modern pies. The relatively large amount of butter would make more of a paste than a stiff dough that could be rolled out.
Personally, I’m glad that times have changed. I won’t need to work all day to convert a raw pumpkin into a smooth puree to pour into a crust that took an hour or more of hard work to knead to a smooth consistency. So this Thanksgiving when I serve pumpkin pie that took me all of 10 minutes to assemble and pop in the oven, I’ll give a nod of thanks to Amelia Simmons for recording the recipe that is now part of our holiday traditions.