Know Your Sweets: Pumpkin Pie

Know Your Sweets

Learn the histories of all your favorite sweets

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye, What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? [John Greenleaf Whittier, The Pumpkin, 1850]

Classic Pumpkin Pie

[Photograph: Lauren Weisenthal]

The Basics

Behold, the most classic of all Thanksgiving desserts: the pumpkin pie. With its flaky, buttery crust and creamy-smooth pumpkin filling, this dessert makes a strong case for more frequent, year-round consumption.

Similar Desserts

Cushaw Pie, Butternut Squash Pie, Sweet Potato Pie, Pumpkin Bread

Key Ingredient Spotlight: Pumpkin


[Photograph: Ben Fishner]

A gourd native to North America, the pumpkin derives its name from the Greek word for large melon, pepon, which was interpreted by the French as pompon, and eventually found its way to English tongues as pumpion.

The oldest evidence of the pumpkin's heritage in the Americas are pumpkin seeds dating between 7000 and 5500 BCE found recently by archeologists in Mexico. Pumpkins and other native squash were primarily used by Native Americans for weaving mats, but were also severed cut into thin strips and roasted over an open flame.


Pumpkin pie is easy to make with any number of its gourd or squash cousins, including Butternut Squash and Cushaw. (Remember, though, that these squash have a bit more water than their pumpkin counterpart, so make sure to allow them to dry thoroughly!) The pumpkin also provides the perfect palate with which to experiment adding chipotle spice, a praline topping, or making your pie black bottom to coax even the most reluctant pumpkin pie eater out of his or her shell.


English colonists were familiar with a version of pumpkin pie—more akin to pumpkin pudding—long before setting foot on American soil. Their version consisted of a pumpkin with its top lopped off and hollowed, which was then filled with cream, spices, and molasses or honey then set to bake in hot ash.


American Cookery [Photograph: wikipedia]

One of the 17th century's most revered pastry chefs, Francoise Pierre la Varenne, is credited with making the first semblance of the pumpkin pie as we know it today. In 1653, after pumpkins were exported to France, the sugar genius created a pompion torte, complete with pastry crust and slivered almonds. The recipe spread to English cookbooks in the late 1600s, making its initial appearance in The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May in 1685. Almost 150 years after its initial creation, the pumpkin pie we so cherish as our own heritage recipe made its way to American cookbooks, appearing in American Cookery by Amelia Simmons in 1796.

Pop Culture

Pumpkin pie is a frequent guest star in many of our traditional holiday-themed songs. It makes cameos in "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" (I met a man who lives in Tennessee, and he was headin' for Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie), "Sleigh Ride" (There's a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy when they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie) and my personal pumpkin favorite, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (Later we'll have some pumpkin pie, and we'll do some caroling).

Get the recipe! Pumpkin Pie >>

Like what you read? Check out more histories of your favorite sweets here!