Thanksgiving dinner without a pumpkin pie as a nightcap doesn’t feel right. There is nothing better (or worse) than feeling so full you could pop, yet watching contemplatively as the pumpkin pie dessert is escorted to the table.
So why is pumpkin pie synonymous with Thanksgiving, and where did this tradition come from?
Thanksgiving is full of lore and tradition, and the rise of the pumpkin pie is no exception. After a brief history lesson, some myth debunking, and some helpful Thanksgiving trivia facts, you’ll be enjoying your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie in a whole new way- full of context.
The First Thanksgiving
Even though pumpkin pie is now a standard dish at most Thanksgiving dinner tables, it wasn’t even consumed at the original Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Similar to the idea that turkey was eaten at this gathering, both of these myths are untrue.
Historians do surmise that pumpkins were present during this three day feast, but not in the form of a pie. This could be because while pumpkins were around in the 1600s, people didn’t have access to other ingredients for pie – such as sugar and butter.
So how were pumpkins eaten by the Pilgrims and the natives back in the 1600s? The few written accounts of the time suggest people used to empty pumpkins and fill them with other foods, such as milk and honey before roasting the gourds over a hot fire. The result was certainly not a pie, but the closest thing to it.
It wasn’t until 1654 that pumpkin pies emerged as a proper dish, yet still constructed entirely differently. Some early pies were made by boiling the pumpkin in milk, others had pumpkin mixed with apple, and many had no crust. We have come a long way from those techniques, with most modern-day pumpkin pies typically made with canned pumpkins, in ovens.
The Rise of Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pies
By the 1700s, pumpkin pie was quickly rising to become a signature dish at the Thanksgiving dinner table. In fact, it gained so much popularity that in 1705, the town of Colchester postponed their Thanksgiving because they did not have enough pumpkin pie.
The iconic pumpkin pie recipe that we all know and love came into existence around 1796 when Amelia Simmons published it in her cookbook American Cookery.
In the mid-1800s, pumpkin pie helped play a part in the fight against slavery and the unity of the northern and southern states after the American Civil Way. During this time, abolitionists used romantic and lavish descriptions of pumpkin pie, turkey, and other Thanksgiving dishes to lobby political figures to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
By establishing a new national holiday, it was the hope that it would bring the divided country some much-needed celebration and solace. Sarah Josepha Hale’s “Northwood'' and Lydia Maria Child’s famous poem “Thanksgiving Day” were both examples of incredibly influential writing that painted vivid pictures of Thanksgiving and the joy it brought to everyone.
After the American Civil War, the tradition of Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie spread across much of the United States, creating a demand for canned pumpkins that still exists today as the holidays approach.
Why Did Pumpkins Become the Chosen Dish?
While there is no definitive answer as to why pumpkins became a popular Thanksgiving dish, the most straightforward and most logical guess is timing. Thanksgiving is celebrated every fall, which is harvest season for pumpkins. During this time, they were readily available, affordable and nutritious.Pumpkins were also often gifted to settlers by the Native Americans, including the Wampanoag tribe which attended the First Thanksgiving. They showed the settlers how to cook and prepare pumpkins properly, helping to solidify the food into the new world diet.
Why Is Pumpkin Pie A Thanksgiving Tradition?
Pumpkin pie became a Thanksgiving tradition due to an abundance of pumpkins. During Thanksgiving time, pumpkins were in abundance and often used as gifts between Native Americans and settlers, they were used in various dishes in the 17th and 18th centuries. A successful pumpkin harvest during the Autumn months was in itself a reason for celebration and certainly played a part in the “harvest festivals” that became a tradition during these times.
While pumpkins were harvested and consumed during the 1600s, pumpkin pie did not grow in popularity until the 1700s, once baking and cooking supplies such as sugar and butter became more readily available.
After Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in the 1800s, pumpkin pie cemented itself as a signature Thanksgiving dish across the country.
VanSchmus, Emily. “This Is Why We Eat Pumpkin Pie at Thanksgiving.” 11 Sept 2020. BHG.com Web. 19 Nov 2021. <https://www.bhg.com/thanksgiving/pies-cakes/why-we-eat-pumpkin-pie/>
Grasso, Chelsey. “Why We Eat Pumpkin Pie On Thanksgiving.” 20 Nov 2016. Bustle.com. Web. 19 Nov 2021 <https://www.bustle.com/articles/195327-why-do-we-eat-pumpkin-pie-on-thanksgiving-heres-where-the-tradition-began>
Barksdale, Nate. “The History of Pumpkin Pie.” 21 Nov 2014. History.com. Web. 19 Nov 2021. <https://www.history.com/news/the-history-of-pumpkin-pie>