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The Pumpkin Paper

July 2024
3min read

A vicious attack on a holiday favorite

When Sir Walter Raleigh’s men set foot on Roanoke Island in 1585 they found the Indians growing a vegetable named “Macócqwer … called by us Pompions … and very good.” It was also very plentiful, and by the seventeenth century colonists were reciting a bit of doggerel that reflected their indebtedness to—if not their delight in—the ubiquitous squash: “We have pumpkins at morning./Pumpkins at noon./If it were not for pumpkins/We should be undoon.”

But the settlers soon found that while stewed pumpkin could sustain life, once it was baked in a pie it actually became good to eat. By the time of the Revolution pumpkin pie had become the reigning delicacy on the Thanksgiving table; and by the nineteenth century it was almost sacrosanct, “a thing of beauty and a joy” to the author of one cookbook, who said that “for the first pumpkin pie of the season, flanked by a liberal cut of creamy cheese, we prefer to sit down, as the French gourmand said about his turkey: ‘with just the two of us; myself and the turkey!’”


It was in the face of this sort of sentiment that, just in time tor the 1893 holiday season, Harper’s Weekly chose to attack this most American of all confections:

“We are somewhat surprised on examining the records to find that pumpkin pie has never been brought into court. … We [should] thoroughly examine it, and determine if possible whether or not this form of plastic food which now holds the American people in its grasp is worthy of confidence. The physical aspects of pumpkin pie are too well known to need more than a passing glance. Pumpkin pie is almost invariably found with but one crust (the lower), and is therefore open-face pie, or, as some scientists prefer, membraneous-top pie. … It is eaten, by those addicted to the habit, either hot or cold, the taste for it in the latter condition usually marking a later stage of the craving. It is said, on what appears to be trustworthy authority, that many of its victims in Massachusetts and other parts of New England habitually swallow large quantities of it at breakfast. …

“In this judicial examination of the pumpkin pie it is allowable, as a help to establishing its character, that we look into its antecedents. … We find the pumpkin to be, apparently, the largest of fruits; but on cutting into it it is discovered to be hollow, the spacious interior being simply festooned with a clammy variety of vegetable cobweb, in which the seeds are suspended. Why the pumpkin should not grow solid like the orange is not apparent, unless it is simply to gain credit for size of which it is not deserving. … The pumpkin must be set down as a hollow and hypocritical vegetable, and association with it cannot but have a bad effect on character. …

“We wish to raise the questions: ‘Does not the same insincerity follow the pumpkin into the pie? What part does pumpkin play in the so-called pumpkin pie? Is pumpkin food… ?’ In the first place, let us note that the best chemical analyses of pumpkin pie show it to be composed of ginger and stewed pumpkin, with traces of other minor substances. … Stewed pumpkin in its native or pure state has but little taste, and that little is a bad taste. We come now to the fact that what we taste in pumpkin pie is ginger. By which easy but unassailable steps we arrive in the clear radiance of the truth that in pumpkin pie the pumpkin is a mere medium for holding the ginger in solution, but that nevertheless it has fastened its name upon the pie. It is as if lemonade should call itself water. What the country has been eating all these years … is ginger pie.

“We cannot hope that our crushing exposure of the disingenuousness of the pumpkin from the hour of its birth upward will have any effect on the name of the pie in which it acts as the vehicle for holding the invigorating and honest ginger in suspension. So long as pumpkin is used as the base for a certain pie, that pie will continue to be called pumpkin pie. But is it not possible that another and better base can be found for the so-called pumpkin pie? Pumpkin being tasteless and unnutritious, there is no reason why it should be eaten.… We scarcely know what to suggest in the place of pumpkin, but wood pulp occurs to us. … It ought to be much cheaper than pumpkin, and would not have its disagreeable taste. It would also have the merit of being nutritious. With wood pulp as a background, as it were, ginger could be liberally projected upon it, and a pie produced which our friend the New-Englander could with impunity sit up in bed and eat before breakfast. But a right start must be made with this pie; honor to whom honor is due; it must be called ginger pie.”

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