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Pumpkin pie’s political past

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| November 22, 2022 1:05 AM

Pumpkin pie makes frequent appearances at chez Patrick; it’s practically a no-guilt dessert. Use less sugar and it still tastes great. Pumpkin is loaded with healthy antioxidants. And it’s a big draw for us lazy cooks, because pumpkin is the easiest pie to make.

Next time you enjoy this holiday favorite, as that creamy orange goodness glides gently down your gullet, remember there’s more to this pie than meets the eye.

First, let’s set the record straight: It wasn’t introduced at the first Thanksgiving (at most, say historians, there may have been some kind of squash on the side).

Pumpkins are among the oldest domesticated plants in the Americas and were used in Mexican and Native American celebrations as much as 9,000 years ago. Native Americans may have taught the pilgrims how to best grow it; the Iroquois and Cherokee called corn, squash, and beans “the three sisters” because they grow better together.

Pumpkin pie has had many iterations. Once upon a time it was served simply and unceremoniously whole; they just scooped out the seeds, cut the top off and dug in (sounds too chewy). More popular was the English version in Hannah Woolley’s book of 1670, “The Gentlewoman’s Companion,” an intriguing version cooked with layers of pumpkin and sliced apple.

Other American pie makers baked it with rosemary and thyme, spiced milk, or molasses. Mmm … molasses.

But pumpkin pie isn’t all sweet and light. There was a time in American history when pumpkin and its pies were at the center of slavery debates. Perhaps an early proof that using purchasing power to make political statements is nothing new to American culture. That politics and capitalism have long shared a relationship, albeit a reluctant one.

The pumpkin became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement in New England when abolitionist writers noticed stark differences in the way pumpkin farms operated, compared to the plantation economies of the South. Pumpkin is a low-labor crop, then-cultivated in small batches in idyllic settings. Eschewing the plantation-produced crops in favor of growing, buying, and eating pumpkin was touted as a way to support the anti-slavery movement.

By mid-19th century, according to historian Cindy Ott’s book, "Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon," eating pumpkins had become a matter of identity politics. So, for a time, was Thanksgiving itself. In 1863 When President Lincoln declared a day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, he called on Americans to "heal the wounds of the nation and restore it."

Despite the high availability of pumpkin and other squashes at southern tables, for years many families refused to celebrate Thanksgiving or eat pumpkin pie as cultural artifacts of the Yankees. Which is a little ironic, as in Virginia and other states with big plantations, its cousin sweet potato pie was made popular by the homes’ African cooks — yams and sweet potatoes are staples in some African nations.

An 1856 editorial in the Richmond Whig decried this “repugnant” holiday, opining that it incurred nothing but Northern idleness and drunkenness. The state of Texas refused to acknowledge Thanksgiving until the 1880s.

Even up North pumpkin had only made rare appearances, seen as more of a country food. That changed when abolitionists and other well-known figures of the day touted its (what we’d now call sustainable) farming practices in contrast to using forced labor and enslaved people. Northerners saw consuming and popularizing it as a way to make a statement and support the cause.

At about the same time New England was changing the way it celebrated Thanksgiving anyway. Protestant Christians in early America observed a private day of fasting and prayer to show spiritual appreciation. By the 1860s and Lincoln’s declaration Thanksgiving had become the opposite — a more group-focused celebration of nature’s prosperity with all its bounty spread on the table. Now, with pumpkin pie reigning supreme alongside the roasted bird.

Meanwhile, some in states such as Virginia effectively campaigned against celebrating Thanksgiving at all, and pumpkins laid waste in their patches.

In a letter decrying New England’s abolitionist movement Virginia’s strident pro-slavery governor, Henry Wise called it, “this theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving, which has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics.’”

Folks on both sides digging in their heels over the most important issue of their day, using a big orange fruit (and a national holiday) instead of bullets. It was only after Reconstruction ended that the Southern states embraced the Thanksgiving holiday. As for pumpkin pie, it remained more of a Yankee thing until the 20th century.

Did pumpkin pie really contribute to the emancipation of enslaved people? Probably not. On second thought, perhaps it did.

Eating or not eating something in protest obviously doesn’t aim at the center of human problems. It can help, and has helped, bring awareness both individual and collective to issues which mean the most to us. The common man’s use of purchasing power to make statements is a very old, and surprisingly effective, weapon.

And another excuse to eat pumpkin pie is rather nice.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.

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