When pumpkin pie was invented it was more like apple pie. The pumpkin was peeled, sliced and baked in a crust and eaten not for its palatability but largely as a prevention for scurvy. Later in history it was stewed, pureed and spiced to give it the modern flavor. In the last 100 years things have changed for pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie used to be hard work, growing, harvesting, peeling, seeding, cooking pureeing. Making the crust out of lard and flour (I would guess a large number of you reading this have no idea how a pie crust is made)
When I was a kid the high point of Thanksgiving sadly was not dinner with the relatives, it was the tablespoon of real whipped cream centered perfectly on the one slice of pumpkin pie you were going to get to eat. You carefully ate around the little dab of whipped cream saving it for several tiny bites at the end when you could savor it fully. Pumpkin pie is not sweet by today’s standards and most kids today will only eat it because it comes covered with sweetened fully hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oil , commonly called cool whip. Often times kids are observed today eating only the Cool Whip garnish and leaving the pie abandoned on the plate awaiting the whirling knives of the garbage disposal. Perhaps my appreciation of pumpkin pie is a result of the totally unfair sugar deprivation I suffered in childhood due to my parents. Deserts just didn’t happen except for occasional ice cream in the summer, pie at thanksgiving and Christmas cookies. It may indeed be true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
The downfall of pumpkin pie as a tradition started with frozen pie crusts and Reddi-whip. I am sure that many of you have never made a pie crust and in fact would have no idea how to do so. Indeed there is an art to making a good crust. Foremost , a good crust is made using lard ( another thing many of you have never seen) but it takes a special tool, time, and a good feel as well. I can make a passable crust but my mother-in -law had the skill which reached its pinnacle in her rhubarb pies. Sadly, even she at the end found that buying the crust was a lot easier than spending ½ an hour making it.
Many years ago pumpkin pie flavor was not as uniform as it is today each cook bought canned pumpkin or stewed and pureed their own and added the nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, sugar, ginger, eggs, milk or cream, and cloves to their own taste so every pie was a new savory ( at times unsavory) surprise based on the cook. Later the stores started making pumpkin spice and allspice and the flavor of the pies began to become the same ol same ol.
Now to that hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oil. Cream doesn’t come as a solid it must be made into one by the application of force. Now an electric mixer is used but some years ago the cream was whipped using an egg beater by hand. Not too stiff and not to liquid, supervision was required while forced labor (the kids) whipped the cream. Too much and you ended up with butter, too little and you ended up with a watery mess.
So you were wondering when I was going to get to the point? Pumpkin pie was valued for its scarcity and the hard work that was put into it, but the final reward for eating the pie was that you worked your way through the pretty good stuff on the outside to get to real good stuff, the tablespoon full of whipped cream in the very center savoring that magically flavored moment that made the rest of the pie worthwhile.
Today we seem to start to often at the good end and quit before we work our way all the way through. In short we want the topping but not the pie. We used to make our own pumpkin pie, now we only use it. Libby makes the pumpkin, Pillsbury makes the Crust, Kraft makes the topping and Alcoa makes the pan so we don’t even have to clean up our own mess. The foundation, the soul of the pie, the love and work that went into it, is often forgotten as consuming the fluff on top becomes the most important thing, consumption that too often leaves the reality and value of pie making behind.
This entire piece was hypocritically written while eating the next to the last piece of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie made from store bought pumpkin pie mix resting in a Pillsbury crust entombed in Cool Whip. But even so I long for the joy and anticipation that the little dab of whipped cream in the middle of a piece of pumpkin pie used to give me. Evidence that little things were very important before we had so much, I wish it could be so again.