Now that we're smack dab in the middle of the fall, New England's best time of year (as we noted in one of our summer posts), it's time to talk about one of the seasonal pies for which New England is best known—pumpkin pie. But the pumpkin pie we have in mind isn't your mother's pumpkin pie. Far from it. That pie—a pumpkin custard, gently spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and a bit of ginger and allspice, and baked in a crust—didn’t come into existence until the late eighteenth century. A century and a half before that, the early settlers of New England weren't all that keen on pumpkins, or the pies that could be made from them. According to the region's first historian, writing in the 1650s, people ate "Pumpkin Pies" only because they had to, because pumpkins (like corn, another unfamiliar food) grew like weeds in the strange new world in which they found themselves. They came up with ways to cook pumpkins (and corn) so that they could survive, not so that they could enjoy what they were eating.
But their compatriots in England didn't feel the same way. To them, sitting pretty and comfortable back home, pumpkins were intriguing in their novelty, not displeasing. By the middle of the seventeenth century, pumpkins were fashionable enough that instructions on how “To Make a Pumpion Pye” were featured in a cookbook attributed to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of the deposed and beheaded former King of England, Charles I:
In this queenly pie, the pumpkin is sliced, fried with beaten eggs, sugar, spices, and herbs,
and placed inside a pie crust with alternating layers of apples and currants.
And it was this pie
that New Englanders, as they became more secure and comfortable, adopted as their own for the next hundred years—until that plucky and ever-creative culinary heroine of the new nation, Amelia Simmons, gave us the pumpkin pie that we all know and love today.
We made Queen Henrietta Maria's "Pumpion Pye," along with Amelia's custard-y pumpkin pie, for our family Thanksgiving dinner last year. Everyone around the table pronounced "Pumpion Pye" well worth reviving. So if you'd like to learn more about how we made "Pumpion Pye," click on over to our most recent column on All Things New England.
The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 301.