Led Zepellin sang about “Custard Pie,” Kenny Chesney immortalized “Key Lime Pie,” and the Beatles loved “Wild Honey Pie.” There’s no musical ode to pumpkin pie, but it’s the essential dessert at many Thanksgiving celebrations. And if not pumpkin then the table holds pecan pie, apple pie, or maybe all three and a couple of other pies too.
Why pie, and not cake, cookies, or other sweets for this holiday meal? It certainly wasn’t part of any feast with the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans -- they wouldn’t have had the butter and flour needed for the crust.
In the late 18th century, there was a change in the way Thanksgiving was celebrated -- it was no longer a church-based holiday, but one associated with food and family -- and since that era coincided with a wave of immigration to the United States from the U.K., the Brits brought their love of all things encased in a pastry shell, whether meat, fish, or fruit. “Most of North America was colonized by the English, and that’s a pie culture,” said Frederick Opie, Ph.D., Professor of History and Society at Babson College in Boston.
New England has a strong tradition of pie -- an old joke, sometimes attributed to Robert Frost, says that a Yankee is someone who eats pie for breakfast. And cake was more challenging before the advent of baking powder; getting the batter to rise was achieved by beaten eggs. “Most cooks had a limited repertoire of cakes until chemical leaveners came around,” said Ken Albala, food historian at the University of the Pacific.
Ultimately, credit for pumpkin’s place of honor at the holiday table goes to “the godmother of Thanksgiving,” Sarah Josepha Hale. Widowed with five children in the early 19th century, she went to work as a writer and magazine editor to support her family. She was quite a fan of the holiday: An entire chapter of her novel "Northwood: A Tale of New England" is devoted to it. According to the "Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America", Hale wrote every year for 17 years to presidents, members of Congress, and the governor of every state and territory, asking them to proclaim Thanksgiving a national holiday; she believed it could help unite different parts of the country with regional self-interests. In 1863, a few months after the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving, and Hale promoted the idea by publishing recipes for turkey, stuffing -- and pumpkin pie.
Pecan trees are native to the region around the Gulf of Mexico and the valley of the Mississippi River. When the French colonized New Orleans at the end of the 17th century, Louisiana pecans became pralines (the correct native pronunciation is a slightly slurred praw-leens), a confection with a French heritage, comprised of nuts, sugar, and cream. Later the nuts were incorporated into “New Orleans pie,” an early rendition of pecan pie, which Opie calls “a praline put inside a crust.” In the 1930s, the wife of a corporate sales executive at Karo Corn Syrup created what would become a classic recipe. (Legend has it that the syrup was named for the company chemist’s wife Caroline.) In the South today, that recipe for corn syrup, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and pecans baked in a pie shell graces many Thanksgiving tables and is known simply as Karo pie.
Watch our Kitchen Conundrums expert, Thomas Joseph, share his tips for making perfect pumpkin pie: