Thanksgiving’s traditional pumpkin pie was once a politically divisive dish

Political division has graced the Thanksgiving table ever since it became a national holiday in 1863. And pumpkin pie was once caught in the middle of it.

Not to ruin your day, but the pilgrims didn’t eat pumpkin pie on the first Thanksgiving. It’s not that they didn’t like pumpkin pie, or have a familiarity with some version of it, they just didn’t have the necessary pumpkin pie ingredients -- there was a shortage of flour, butter and sugar at the local grocery store that year. 

It’s possible the pilgrims had a pumpkin pie-like dish made from hollowing out a pumpkin shell, filling it with milk, honey and spices and roasting it in ashes. But even that is pure speculation. Pumpkin pies existed in England prior to the Pilgrims leaving, but they often included apples and savory spices, according to History.com, making a very different dish than what we think of as pumpkin pie today.  

The sweet custard pumpkin pie -- the pumpkin pie we all know and love -- didn’t begin to appear in American cookbooks until the late 1700s. But it still wasn’t a Thanksgiving staple at a holiday that was an on-again, off-again event during the first century of U.S. history.

One woman is primarily responsible for changing that in the years before and during the Civil War. Sarah Josepha Hale, a novelist, abolitionist and editor of Godey’s Lady Book, one of the more popular magazines of the time, advocated that Thanksgiving be celebrated as a national holiday. She wrote editorials and regularly published recipes for a “traditional” Thanksgiving spread that included turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, which is how these foods became associated with the holiday, according to History.com

When Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, part way through the Civil War, it was met with resistance. The holiday, as some saw it in the South, wasn’t about celebrating a good harvest or the country’s shared history, but an immoral day meant to further the Northern political agenda. And pumpkin pie was central to the conspiracy. 

Pumpkin pie was more of a New England dish. It had become popular and was included in all kinds of literature from the area -- novels, poems, pamphlets and the like. This included writings by abolitionists like Hale, whose anti-slavery novel, “Northwood,” was published in 1827; and Lydia Maria Child, whose cheerful holiday song, “Over the River and Through the Woods,” first declared “Hurrah for the pumpkin pie” in 1842. 

So for many in the South, pumpkin pie wasn’t just plain old pie like it was in the North. It was a slice of Yankee values and a vehicle for the anti-slavery political agenda. Many wanted no part of that at their Thanksgiving celebration, so pumpkin pie was typically replaced with something more Southern, like sweet potato pie. 

Pumpkin pie has since lost its never-intended political taint, but we’ve found new political issues to argue about at the Thanksgiving table. So if, on this holiday, you find your most benign actions being misconstrued as offensive espousals of your political views and agenda, count yourself part of a grand tradition.

And then graciously smile, take another piece of pumpkin pie and remember that the day is about something bigger than all of that.

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