The other day, I visited Kathleen Wall at Plymouth Plantation. She's the foodways historian there, which means that she gets to read a lot of old texts and pick up hints about what the Pilgrims were and were not eating. She also plays Elizabeth Warren in the 1627 village, so she spends a lot of days in costume and in character interacting with schoolchildren. She's a very interesting person.
When we were together, we talked a lot about pumpkin. Pompions, the English settlers called them. Pompions were not common in old England, because they're vining plants which means they need hot summers, but they were incredibly abundant when the Pilgrims arrived here. They mention three types: something called a vining apple, which by all accounts is an acorn squash, something called a buckler which sounds like a Patty Pan, and the Great Pompion, known today as a jack-o-lantern.
Unfortunately, for all the pumpkins they found in New England, what the Pilgrims really wanted was apples. There were no apples in their part of the New World until the 1630s—nine years after the celebration we call the first Thanksgiving. I asked Kathleen why, and she pointed out that for a while other things took precedence—things like building houses and forts and fences and generally trying to stay alive. Fair enough. So in the meantime the Pilgrims ate pumpkins and wrote poems like this one:
NEW ENGLAND'S ANNOYANCES
Instead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies;
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it was not for pumpkins we should be undone!
When they cooked pumpkins, they generally stewed them into something reminiscent of apple butter. They scooped out the seeds and peeled them and cut the flesh into very small pieces, and then let it stew down all day in an iron pot over the fire. They added cinnamon or ginger and a little bit of vinegar to give it kick. And it almost—almost—tasted like apple butter, like home.
Kathleen says they probably served stewed pompion at the celebration we call the first Thanksgiving—the harvest meal the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims shared in the fall of 1621.
I asked about pumpkin pie, and she says that would have come a bit later. They didn't have much spare flour or sugar. But she did say that when they started making pumpkin pie, they sliced the pumpkin into little crescent shapes, like you would with apples. The custard pie we think of as a classic didn't appear until much later. Apples showed up again in the 1630s, which meant if anyone was going to the trouble and expense of making a pie, they were using apples instead.
But don't let that stop you from eating pumpkin pie today. The pilgrims had pumpkin on Thanksgiving. It wasn't pie, but it was there, in the iron stew pot. And if you need a last minute recipe, here's my grandma's. It is, as labeled, The Best.
PUMPKIN PIE (THE BEST)
This is my grandmother's recipe. I've titled it exactly as she wrote it out on the card—and true to her word, this pie never fails. I usually use homemade pureed pumpkin or winter squash in place of the canned pumpkin, but that's the only tweak. Oh! and a note about the amounts—this recipe makes two pies.
4 eggs, beaten slightly
24 ounces pureed pumpkin or winter squash
1 and 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
13 fluid ounces evaporated milk
two 9-inch pie crusts, preferably homemade
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Whisk together the ingredients in the order given and pour the filling into the two bottom crusts. Bake for 15 minutes; turn the heat down to 350 and bake for another 45. Serve warm or cool, with a thick dollop of whipped cream.