by Joy Salyers
Last week I was sitting at the high counter in my mother’s Hillsborough kitchen with her and her best friend of more than three decades, who was down for a visit. We had in front of us plates of pumpkin pie that my mother had made.
I guess some folks just eat pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas (and of course some folks don’t eat it at all, but I must confess a strong personal preference for pumpkin over sweet potato pie – sorry!). But any time in fall or winter seems like a good pumpkin pie time to me. When my kids brought home pie pumpkins from school field trips in October, we scooped them out, cooked them, and froze what we didn’t immediately make into pies or bread. Our family is split on the appropriate accompaniment – plain, ice cream, or Cool Whip. (Our family friend was shocked that a health conscious person like me would put that concoction of chemicals on her food, but what can I say? I was raised on it.)
As we were talking about this and that, my mother suddenly said, “My mother used to make pumpkin pie more the way you would make an apple pie. She would cook the pumpkin and mash it up with a potato masher, but it was still pretty chunky. Then she would mix in sugar and the same kinds of seasoning and some flour to thicken it. She did add a little milk, but no eggs. It wasn’t a custard kind of pie like this at all. And it took me a long time to grow to like this other kind of pumpkin pie.”
I had never heard of this tradition of pumpkin pie making and, being me, I started to research. The notion of putting pumpkin in pie came to us from England; funny, isn’t it, to have to import the tradition of pumpkin pie, when pumpkins themselves are native to the Americas? Apparently the fruit quickly became popular in France, where it was called pompion, and migrated from there to Tudor England. The French Cook, an influential book translated into English from French in 1653, included a recipe for Tourte of Pumpkin that seems similar:
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.”
My grandmother was a Henley from East Tennessee – about the only branch of our family tree to contain “people of note” such as Revolutionary War officer Col. David Henley in addition to the sharecroppers, coal miners, farmers, and country preachers that abound. Could the Henley family have brought this pumpkin pie tradition with them when emigrating from England? Or could early English settlers in Appalachia have retained this custom after the rest of the country had adopted the custard style we now think of as traditional pumpkin pie?
On the other hand, I also found an 1877 recipe for pumpkin pie that is very similar to what my mother described in The Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping (love that name), a widely used cookbook published in Minneapolis.
So I have no idea if this is a mountain thing, or a quirk that one grandmother picked up from the leading household management authority of the day, or perhaps the result of some other story all together. How about it, readers? Do any of your families have a history of making pumpkin pie more like other fruit pies than like custard? And if so, what’s your story?
Joy M. Salyers is Executive Director of the North Carolina Folklife Institute. She will work for food!