Was there pumpkin pie at that first legendary Thanksgiving? My bet is there was.
You will recall from grade school that the first grand feed was held in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621 by the Pilgrims to mark their first harvest — and the fact they were alive. This was something to celebrate, given that 50% of their compatriots didn’t make it through the first year. We know that the feast lasted more than three days, but exactly what was on the menu remains a bit of a mystery.
The English being English, the reports of the event mention only the meat. We know they invited about 90 Wampanoag who brought plenty of venison, and the Englishmen managed to bag a week’s worth of unnamed game birds, so there’s a pretty good chance wild turkeys were among them. As far as cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, marshmallow-topped yams and Campbell’s green bean casserole, or even pie, the record is silent. We know they had no potatoes, marshmallows or Campbell’s soup.
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But there’s a semi-decent chance they might have sent the kids into the cranberry bogs to pick the autumn fruit and stewed some sort of condiment out it. After all, this sort of thing was popular enough in England at the time. And they probably did have pie, an English staple if ever there were one, though apple pie would have been out of the question — not because they wouldn’t have been familiar with it. Apple pie is mentioned as early as the 14th century, and the cookbooks familiar to the Puritans included plenty of apple pie recipes. The trouble was, any apple trees in Massachusetts would have been no more than seedlings.
What were the other options? Back across the Atlantic, pie shells — or “coffins,” as they were known — could be filled with just about anything: pigeons, mutton haunches, minced meat, baby pigs, rabbits. For a lark, four and twenty live blackbirds might be tucked away in a pie crust and released at the dinner table. Fruit and vegetables were popular fillings as well, often sweetened, but not always. Pumpkins, or pompions, as they were called, had taken up root in England long before the Mayflower sailed and consequently pumpkin pie recipes showed up early, though not in a form the test kitchens at Libby’s would recognize. John Gerard recommended baking them sliced with apples in the 1590s. Hannah Woolley’s popular 17th-century culinary guide, “A Gentlewoman’s Companion,” described a “pompion pye” made by sautéing pumpkin pieces with thyme, rosemary, marjoram, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. These are mixed with eggs and sugar and layered in the pie shell with apples and currants. To serve the pie, you lift off the lid, stir the pumpkin to a purée and replace the lid.
Apparently, there were parts of England where pumpkins were cultivated specifically for a custardy apple pumpkin pie. It’s reasonable to surmise that early New England settlers made something similar but with just pumpkins. Maybe pompion pye, made of familiar native squash, was one of the exotic European preparations the Wampanoag guests got to taste in 1621.
Certainly the kind of smooth pumpkin custard-filled pie we’re familiar with became commonplace in New England. Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” from 1796 has a couple of recipes for it as well as a variant made with apples mixed with squash. All these are based on old-world models, on pies filled with a sweet purée of potatoes, chestnuts, quinces or even African yams. The main difference: In the king’s English, these were called “baked puddings”; in America they eventually came to be “pies.”
No Libby’s for this apple pumpkin pie
Compared to 100 or more years ago, today’s cook is presented with both advantages and impediments to making a decent pumpkin pie. Canned pumpkin is ubiquitous, almost all of it made by Libby’s, from a pumpkin variety called Dickinson that resembles a giant, tan football. Finding your own cooking pumpkin, however, isn’t always easy.
There are plenty of those big, happy, orange pumpkins, but they are intended for carving jack-o’-lanterns, not eating. Their flesh is scrawny, insipid and altogether useless for pie, or any other culinary effect. Like the Libby’s variety, cooking pumpkins tend to be the color of butternut squash, with a thick layer of orange flesh. The so-called cheese pumpkin is one kind that can be found at farmers markets this time of year. But even these, you can’t just roast and use. To get the desired density for a custard-type pumpkin pie, the roasted pumpkin flesh needs to be lightly puréed (a food processor or food mill will do the job) and then drained. The easiest way to do this is to line a large sieve or colander with a coffee filter. After two or three hours, the consistency will approximate what comes from a Libby’s can.
Is it worth the effort? That’s not the sort of question a Puritan would ask.
Apple Pumpkin Pie
Adapted from “The Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook”
Prep time: about 1/2 hour
Cook time: about 1 hour
Total time: 1 1/2 hours plus time needed to make pastry
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
While this doesn’t exactly reproduce the consistency of the old British custardy pumpkin apple pies, it is a tasty departure from the usual autumn staples. If a cooking pumpkin isn’t available, a butternut squash will serve the same purpose.
1 recipe double crust pie pastry (recipe follows)
1 1/2 pounds cooking pumpkin or butternut squash
1 pound firm cooking apples such as Northern Spy, Baldwin or golden delicious
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
3 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Large pinch nutmeg
Large pinch cloves
1 egg, lightly beaten
1. Roll out half of the pastry for a bottom crust and place in a 9-inch pie pan. Refrigerate.
2. Preheat oven to 425 F.
3. Scoop out the pumpkin seeds, cut the pumpkin into 1-inch strips, cut away the peel and slice the strips into 1/8-inch thick pieces. (You should have 4 cups.)
4. Peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut into 1/4-inch slices.
5. In a large bowl, toss the pumpkin with the apples, vinegar, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Arrange in the pastry-lined pie pan.
6. Brush the edge of the dough with the beaten egg.
7. Roll out the remaining dough and place on top of the filling. Crimp the edges. Cut vent holes in the top crust and brush the top with the egg.
8. Set on the bottom shelf of the oven. Bake 20 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 F. Continue baking until golden brown and the pumpkin offers no resistance to a knife or skewer, about 1 more hour.
9. Cool at least 2 hours before serving. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.
Double Crust Pie Pastry
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes plus 2 or more hours of chilling
Yield: Makes enough dough for 1 double crust or 2 single crust pies.
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
6 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening
about 1/3 cup ice water
1. Sift together the flour, and salt. Add the butter and shortening. Using your hands or a pastry cutter, break up the two fats in the flour until the mixture is about as fine as rolled oats.
2. Add just enough water to moisten the flour. Toss to form a rather dry dough. Do not overmix. Gather the dough together and wrap in plastic film. Refrigerate at least 2 hours.
Note: The dough may be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for several months.
Main photo: Apple Pumpkin Pie. Credit: Michael Krondl