Days of Thanksgiving were common in many Colonial American communities throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, typically declared by ministers or governors in response to specific occasions, such as a military victory, a plentiful harvest, or beneficial rainfall, but no specific Thanksgiving Day was celebrated on a yearly basis. It was George Washington who issued the first Presidential proclamation for the holiday in 1789, designating Thursday, November 26 as a national day of “public thanksgiving.” The United States then celebrated its first Thanksgiving under its new Constitution.
By the 1850s, almost every state and territory celebrated Thanksgiving, but it didn’t become a national holiday until President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863, the result of a 17-year campaign by Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale. She was able to convince President Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving might help heal the nation after the devastating Civil War. Soon after, with the Victorian era and all its opulence in full swing, Thanksgiving dinner became the one of the most carefully planned meals of the year for most families, with pumpkin pie as its traditional dessert.
However, this wasn’t always the case. Thought to have originated in Central America, pumpkins were abundant throughout North America by the time Europeans began to explore the New World. And although early English settlers used pumpkins in different preparations, (including stewed and in puddings and pies), pumpkin pie didn’t become a customary Thanksgiving dessert until the early 19th century. The custardy mix of pumpkin, eggs, milk or cream, sweetener and spices was often called a pudding, as most one-crust pies were until at least mid-19th century.
In the Northeast, pumpkin and squash were often used interchangeably, with one a perfectly acceptable substitute for the other. Southerners preferred their own version made with sweet potatoes. Molasses or sorghum were common sweeteners, as they were cheaper than refined sugar, but once white sugar became more readily available and cost effective, it became the common ingredient.
In celebration of Sarah Josepha Hale’s tireless campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday and solidify its place in America’s cultural traditions, I decided to make the pumpkin pie version in her 1870 cookbook, Mrs. Hale's New Cook Book.
Born in New Hampshire in 1788, Mrs. Hale was a fascinating woman with a long list of achievements. In addition to her Thanksgiving crusade, she also campaigned for the completion of the Bunker Hill monument. She was a prolific writer, penning novels, poems (including “Mary had a Little Lamb”), essays, cookbooks and magazine articles. While editor of Godey’s Lady’s book (a post she held for 40 years), she became a well-known authority for middle-class women regarding fashion, cooking, literature, and morality.
She actually lists two version of pumpkin pie in this cookbook – one American and one English. Of course I made the American recipe! No canned pumpkin here - most recipes of the time instruct stewing the pumpkin, then straining it through a sieve before adding the other ingredients. Hale recommends using three eggs, but to make it richer it is absolutely fine to add more eggs and/or cream. She also suggests an ingredient not commonly used in pumpkin pies today: grated lemon peel.
Here’s her version:
Pumpkin Pie (American)--Take out the seeds, and pare the pumpkin or squash; but in taking out the seeds do not scrape the inside of the pumpkin; the part nearest the seed is the sweetest; then stew the pumpkin, and strain it through a sieve or cullender. To a quart of milk, for a family pie, 3 eggs are sufficient. Stir in the stewed pumpkin with your milk and beaten-up eggs, till it is as thick as you can stir round rapidly and easily. If the pie is wanted richer make it thinner, and add sweet cream or another egg or two; but even 1 egg to a quart of milk makes "very decent pies." Sweeten with molasses or sugar; add 2 teaspoonsful of salt, 2 tablespoonsful of sifted cinnamon, and 1 of powdered ginger; but allspice may be used, or any other spice that may be preferred. The peel of a lemon grated in gives it a pleasant flavor. The more eggs, says an American authority, the better the pie. Some put 1 egg to a gill of milk. Bake about an hour in deep plates, or shallow dishes, without an upper crust, in a hot oven.
Here’s the modern update:
All-American Pumpkin Pie
- 1 small pie pumpkin
- 1 cup milk or cream
- 3 eggs
- ¼ cup molasses
- ½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp ginger
- ½ tsp allspice
- ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
- ¼ tsp cloves
- Zest from one lemon
Cut the pumpkin into quarters, take out the seeds, peel and cut into small chunks. Stew over low heat in a large stockpot with ¼ - ½ cup water until soft, or place in a crock pot with the same amount of water and cook on high setting for about 2 hours. When soft and rather mushy, drain in a sieve and press out excess water. Beat eggs, then mix thoroughly with milk, molasses and sugar. Add salt, spices and lemon zest, give the mixture a good stir and then add pumpkin. Mix again and then pour into a pie-crust lined plate. Bake at 350F for 50-60 min. Enjoy!
Sources: The Oxford Guide to American Food and Drink; Mrs. Hale's New Cook Book; Thanksgiving with the Presidents – The National Archives Website; “Thanksgiving History,” Plimouth Plantation website - http://www.plimoth.org/learn/MRL/read/thanksgiving-history;