Guest Post: Pumpkin Pie: A History Linking France and the United States

Nothing signals the start of autumn like the arrival of pumpkins in stores and homes. When I first came to the Unites States, fall quickly became my favorite time of year and pumpkin pie became one of my favorite desserts to make. Even though I am French and the pumpkin pie actually has its roots in France, I did not come to appreciate this delicious dessert until I moved to the States, where pumpkin pie transformed into the required holiday dessert we know today. Like so many dishes and desserts, pumpkin pie has a fascinating history if you choose to look for it.

The earliest evidence of pumpkin domestication comes from Central America more than 7,500 years ago. Archaeologists discovered the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico. However, those pumpkins showed little resemblances to the large, orange pumpkins we would recognize today. They were small, very dense balls that weren’t sweet but bitter. Rather than using their nutritional and readily available seeds, pre-Columbian natives grew pumpkins for their flesh instead. Thanks to their solid, thick flesh, pumpkins proved ideal for storing during cold weather and in times of scarcity.

When tracing the history of any dish, the journey usually takes you across continents, and because these recipes are so old, the details can become a little fuzzy. However, by drawing upon archived texts, we can begin to craft a clearer picture using close variations of the pumpkin pie to deconstruct its evolution.

The earliest record of pumpkin pie comes from French chef, Francois Pierre la Varenne, author of multiple French cookbooks, including The French Cook, in which he published this recipe,“Tourte of Pompion (pumpkin).”

An excerpt from The French Cook (1653):

“Boile it with good milk, pass it through a straining pan very thick, and mix it with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds; let all be very thin. Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it. After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve.”

The first recorded recipe using pumpkin at all in America, was in John Josselyn’s New-England’s Rarities Discovered, published in the early 1670’s. This side dish recipe featured ripe diced pumpkin that had been cooked down in a pot over an entire day. After cooking, butter and spices were added to the pumpkin and is reminiscent of a recipe you might see for sweet potatoes or squash in modern American Cuisine.

It was common in the 17th century for women to use pumpkins as vessels for creative dishes in the kitchen. Cooking, and specifically inventing new dishes, was a way for women that lived during this times to express their creativity and socialize.

While recipes including pumpkin can be found in cookbooks dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t until 1796 that the first truly American cookbook, American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons was published . Simmons' famous text included a recipe for pumpkin pie closer to how we know it today.

Exerpts from American Cookery (1796):

“Pompkin Pudding No. 1. One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.

Pompkin Pudding No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.”

From Simmons’ recipes back in the 18th century all the way to 2017, pumpkin pie remains mostly unchanged, and although many chefs and home cooks have their very own special version of this holiday favorite, it’s fascinating that the original recipe has aged so well. While it’s entirely possible that recipes similar to Simmons’ existed in some form before 1796, it was her book, American Cookery, that is widely recognized as introducing pumpkin pie to America.

The French Cook - Francois Pierre la Varenne - 1653

New-England’s Rarities Discovered – John Josselyn - 1670

American Cookers - Amelia Simmons – 1796

For more from The Historical Cooking Project on Amelia Simmons, see:

Biography: Remy Bernard is the owner of Miss Mamie’s Cupcakes, a food and cooking blog. She is also a chef with decades of experience in the restaurant industry and a writer with a deep passion for food and its historical context as it relates to our modern day culture.


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