Friday, 5 October 2012

Pumpkin Pie: A Canned History

It's the first week of October and I've already munched through my first pumpkin pie of the season. Why is the pumpkin pie so important to America? And why do I get disturbing flashbacks whenever I see a tin of Libby's? Read on, pumpkinheads, read on.

Pumpkin pie made with Libby's - homemade crust though
This strange, spicy, custardy dessert has a surprisingly long-standing place in US harvest tradition. The humble pumpkin is native to North America, and pumpkin pie recipes have been found dating back to before the USA itself existed.

Native Americans probably presented the pumpkin to settlers, which would help to prevent scurvy. Native Americans filled pumpkin with milk and spices and baked it on embers. I'm not sure if this is the first pumpkin pie or the first pumpkin spice latte, but the settlers were not keen on a pumpkin pie devoid of a crumbly, salty crust and many died of scurvy anyway.

In 1651 a Frenchman wrote a recipe that encased the pumpkin in pastry, and also called for the baker to "besprinkle" the pie with sugar. Can we please bring the word "besprinkle" back into use?

The French then introduced the pumpkin pie to Tudor England, allegedly in the form we still recognize today. But it did not become ingrained into the UK psyche like it did here in the US. The English tried to add raisins and apples to the pie mix which probably ruined it. The Brits decided to stick to adding fruit to meat and faux-meat pies, creating the tradition of the boozy mince pie instead.

According to Jack Staub, Members of the Church of England mockingly referred to Thanksgiving as "St.Pumpkin's Day". He also states that Boston was known as "pumpkinshire" before it became "beantown" and its residents were nicknamed "pumpkinheads". I love this factoid. Can we please rename Boston Pumpkinshire?

Before the USA came to being bakers were already adding the vital "pumpkin spice" flavor to the pie: cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It's this simple mix of spices, and especially the clove taste, that characterizes this whole season. When you read "pumpkin spice" in all this crazy seasonal marketing, this is what you're scratching n' sniffing. The pie recipe and spices have barely changed at all since the first Thanksgiving.

In the past century, Americans found a way to preserve and can the humble pumpkin so it can easily be scooped into pre-made pie crust for an instant traditional dish. I'm not above making my mince pies with pre-made mincemeat, and not above making pumpkin pie from a tin either.

However, I still sometimes have involuntary twitches when I see the Libby's stacked on shelves. I start to sweat and flashback to a disturbingly tense moment in the history of the pumpkin.

Back in 2009 Libby's announced a pumpkin shortage. Panic ensued. Whether it was a marketing ploy or not, I'm still traumatized. Why? I was working in a boutique delicatessen in St.Andrews, Scotland, at the time. And the American University students did not cope well with the great pumpkin shortage of 2009. You can read about this here, and the following day here. And you really should. They are very funny posts. Trust me.

While I didn't understand back then, I admit I get it now. The pumpkin pie is an important emblem of US history, a vital slice of US tradition.  It should be the national fruit.

Pumpkin pie gets demolished
Despite my issues with Libby's canned Pumpkin, I have no issues eating pie.

blogtoberfest? Remember, it's the Glad Blog Octoberfest all this month, so please send me your own Fall themed posts - I'd love to feature my favorites. What's your favorite pumpkin pie recipe?


  1. i read your post from 2009 - oh my goodness! people are so like that though. i actually remember the shortage. i love pumpkin pie- i need to get some this year soon

    <3 katherine
    of corgis and cocktails

    1. It was such a bemusing few days working in the store. It's hilarious to think back now, because we were selling that stuff for about $6 a can, no joke. That's St.Andrews for you!

  2. I love pumpkin pie and when I make it next (note I have never made) just eaten it, I will prance around the kitchen be sprinkling.

  3. I LOVE besprinkle. I will use it as much as possible from now on!
    I don't like pumpkin pie but I think that's due to my strange custard phobia...

    Jesss xo

    1. I'm very intrigued about your strange custard phobia now…

  4. I love love love pumpkin pie. a lot. I have it tattooed on my hip. No, really I do. So thank you for this post. :)


    1. Do pictures exist? That's amazing! A friend of mine has a cup of tea tattooed on her hip - she is quintessentially British.