An American (?) Classic – Pumpkin Pie

In the first decade of the 1900s, a number of articles appeared in the American press on pumpkin pie. As I explained yesterday, after some 250 years, a realization had coalesced that the pumpkin was an American original and most particularly in the form of pumpkin pie.

The pie had achieved cultural status, as the hot dog, still in gestation, would in a generation, and the hamburger in two.

Pumpkin pie was a thing, a symbol of nationhood. You could argue about its confection, its quality here and there, but to attack it even implicitly invited someone’s high dudgeon, usually a journalist’s. When the national fabric is threatened, right-thinking people react to defend it. This happened with pumpkin pie in the 1910s.

A number of news articles, seemingly quite innocuous, had appeared arguing for a pie made from yellow squash, the crook-neck type still common in the market. One stated that made properly, it could hardly be distinguished from pumpkin pie, and some thought it had a better taste.

On a slow press day no doubt, the Washington Herald mustered all its oratorical power in defense of the “distinct American institution”, pumpkin pie. It enlisted in aid no less a thunderer than William Jennings Bryan, whose Commoner was making a splash. Bryan needs no introduction, I’m sure, to most readers.

You can read all about it here. This is the first paragraph.

Rachel A. Snell is a food historian who has studied American and Anglo-Canadian middle class domestic cooking of the 1800s. In this 2014 article she reproduces two Victorian recipes for pumpkin pie, one American, one English. They are from Sarah J. Hale’s foundational The Ladies’ New Book of Cookery (1852).

It seems a supposed American institution had an English counterpart. Which came first?

The pumpkin originates in the new world, as most people know. But it was sent to England a long time ago, possibly around the time or even before the Pilgrims established in America. Maybe Pilgrim pumpkin pie is really English. So many other things in North American foodways, extending to its drink customs, are, as I have discussed time and again here. Of course the pie was different here, just as bourbon is different from malt whisky. But not that different…

Felice Boselli’s resonant painting shown above includes a pumpkin in a display of flowers and fruits. It was composed in 1700. Boselli was a noted still life painter of the Italian baroque era.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from Wikipedia Commons here, and is believed in the public domain.The second image was extracted from the 1903 newspaper article linked in the text, available via the Chronicling America historical newspapers site. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the sources resides solely in their lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.



6 thoughts on “An American (?) Classic – Pumpkin Pie”

  1. Interesting articles for sure! I think it all depends perhaps on what you grew up with. Butternut is a Cucurbrita Moschata as is Dickenson Pumpkin, despite the fact it is technically a squash. Interestingly enough, if you go to the store and buy Libby’s or GFS Pumpkin Pie filling, it is Dickenson Pumpkin, so technically a squash. I have had pie made from straight field pumpkin before, it is ok, but it is very watery and hard to deal with due to the stringiness. I have no doubt that many have made pie from the true cucurbrita pepo and some may in fact prefer it but I believe the utility and uniformity of flesh as well as the much higher brix of the squash families would have made them more familiar and useful to folks in the early days of america for making pumpkin pie. Perhaps the term “pumpkin” was a catch all for any type of edible squash type fruit at some point and the preferences developed later or regionally independent of one another?

    • Many thanks for taking the time Alan. It sounds like there may be no “bright line” between the “pumpkin” some writers were defending for pie and these other types of squash. I suspect the pepo may have been one original type but even with its failings, maybe that is why some pies use rich milk or cream and molasses or other sweeteners. Some pies use no cream-based product, and less sweeteber than others. (I found a 1930s news article from a botanist in which he said he was trying to cross between the 4 families, Pepo, Moschata, etc. He said the groups within each type would cross, but not between the four. But maybe that’s changed since then).


  2. I think the conversation here is highly contingent on species and type of “pumpkin” used and varies tremendously from region to region. For example, most, if not all pumpkin pie was traditional made from Cucurbrita Moschata squash in the midwest as true Cucurbrita Pepo (orange field pumpkin) is typically too stringy and watery to make a good pie. On the east coast, New York in particular the Long Island Cheese pumpking reigned supreme, it too being a Cucurbrita Moschata. Further up the coast was the Cucurbrita Maxima, the well known and much relied upon Hubbard type. The yellow crookneck you mention is actually the same species as the typical orange cheese pumpkin and at maturity doesn’t have much distinction in terms of flavor, consistency, or character. The “pumpkins” pictured in the painting are too Cucurbrita Pepo of the Arikara or Acorn type. As far as what was standard English fare I’m not sure. If any of the squash family arrived there before the settlers, and I am sure they did, my guess is it was likely of the C. Maxima family as they love and thrive in cool damp places and were common in South America, much more common than Moschata and Pepo which have Mexican origins. Love your blog btw!

    • Extremely interesting, many thanks. I have a question but want to find again the article which prompts it.


      • Alan, do you have any comments on these two articles, the first from Hartford, KY in 1903 entitled Pumpkin Pie, the second from the same year printed in The Commoner, entitled Pumpkins?

        Is it possible to reconcile these various references to squash and pumpkin?

        A third article, from the same period, advises to use half-squash, half-pumpkin in the recipe…


    • For what it’s worth, Melissa Clark of the New York Times rates various squashes for pumpkin pie. She likes butternut squash the best, which at first blush doesn’t seem “pumpkin” to me, but she likes it.

      The fact remains, in the c. 1900 articles I’ve referred to, a distinction is drawn between pumpkin and other squash. Some plump for pumpkin. Some state squash produces a very good pie. And one article called for a 50/50 mixture. It would be interesting to know what varieties were meant.


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