Thanksgiving TM_FF_ANTIPMPK_FI_002

Gourd To Death

Your pumpkin pie is boring, and the Pilgrims didn't eat it anyway.


Rallying against the overabundance of “pumpkin” flavored and scented items that fill our coffee-shop menus and store shelves is like worrying about Miley Cyrus’s future or whether you left the oven on when you’re on vacation: it might feel important, but you can’t do anything about it. By now, we all know that many of the “pumpkin” treats marketed at us don’t have any actual pumpkin in them, right? Rather, “pumpkin” has become shorthand for a comforting combination of seasonal spices. I get it. Saying “pumpkin” or “pumpkin spice” is easier than “cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and maybe some allspice latte.”

So, if telling you that there’s no pumpkin in a lot of pumpkin-spice stuff is akin to telling you there’s no Santa Claus, is informing you that there was no actual pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving like telling you that the Easter Bunny is fake too? While the pumpkin is indigenous to North America and they likely had a pumpkin dish at the first Thanksgiving, they didn’t have the wheat to make the crusts at the time.

Rather, the pumpkin and the pumpkin pie are American nostalgia foods – and they’ve been that for a long time. In a 2012 interview with NPR, St. Louis University American Studies professor Cindy Ott discussed how, when Americans started moving into cities in the 19th century, they became wistful for farm life, and one of the ways of expressing that was through romanticizing the pumpkin, putting it in poems and paintings. Said Ott, “We’re celebrating the nostalgia for this old fashioned, rural way of life, that no one ever really wanted to stay on, but everyone’s always been romantic about.” That sense of nostalgia is also what helped really drive the pumpkin pie to the Thanksgiving table. In a phone interview, Fitchburg State University history professor Dr. Susan Williams noted that, around the time of the bicentennial of pilgrims’ landing, and “Americans began to try to consciously find some items [for the Thanksgiving menu] that said ‘America’” – like apple and pumpkin pie.

If that still seems like a late time for pumpkin pie to come to the turkey-day table, remember that Thanksgiving as we know it today – the dishes and traditions – really didn’t get started until the 1800s. In fact, the reason we celebrate Thanksgiving today is likely less because of the pilgrims and more because of a magazine, Godey’s Lady Book. The magazine’s editor from 1827 to 1877, Susan Hale, was an endless champion of Thanksgiving year after year, providing recipes and information to help standardize the celebration along with calls to make it a national holiday.

If it seems like I’m being unfair to the pumpkin, I want to take this moment to note that I love pumpkin (and all the spices it gets paired with). My favorite fall cake is a pumpkin coffee cake. I love buying a pumpkin and roasting it until the flesh is soft and slightly caramelized, and then blending it into a soup. But while I understand the comforting appeal of having the same Thanksgiving dishes every year (I miiiight have pitched a little fit the year my mom announced that she was trying a new stuffing), I’ve always found pumpkin pie to be disappointing as a Thanksgiving dessert. So many people just plop it out of a can. Isn’t this supposed to be a holiday of culinary celebration? (Canned cranberry sauce aside, for those of you who insist.)

And I’m not the only one that feels this way. Just look at the 1917 fiction-cookbook mash-up, A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband with Bettina’s Best Recipes (1917), which follows new bride Bettina on her first year of marriage, providing recipes for every occasion. In the Thanksgiving chapter, her aunt and uncle have this conversation:

“It doesn’t seem natural without pumpkin pie,” said Aunt Lucy, “but John was all for plum pudding instead.”

“We can have pie any day,” said Uncle John, “but this is a special occasion… I was determined that mother should show her skill.”

That pretty much sums up my feeling about pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving – it’s lazy, especially at a time when pumpkin flavors are everywhere. Moreover, one of the things I found interesting during my research was that, in three different Thanksgiving menus from early 1900s cookbooks, not one of them included pumpkin pie as dessert – rather, many of the desserts were classic British special-occasion fare, like the aforementioned plum pudding or mince meat pie, or more generic desserts, like sponge cake with a variety of toppings.

So, here is my humble suggestion, because I am not a pumpkin-hating monster – this Thanksgiving, take a break from all the pumpkin-spice mania, and put pumpkin on the savory side of the table. Make a pumpkin casserole or mash pumpkin with sweet potatoes. And hey, if you really need to get your pumpkin-spice fix, you can always run out Thanksgiving morning and get one of those damn lattes.

If you’re worried that not having pumpkin pie will leave your dessert lacking, I have you covered. For the historical Thanksgiving lovers, I offer Indian Pudding – a New England classic that dates back to the early 17th century. The Thanksgiving Pudding, meanwhile, gives you that delightful custardy taste and texture similar to pumpkin pie. And the mince meat pie… well, it’s a pie. With meat. If you’ve never had it before, I encourage you to try it – it’s pretty spectacular.

Mince Meat Pie

As someone who didn’t eat mince meat growing up – the real, classic kind, with beef in it – I find eating this pie disorienting. It’s delicious and wintry spiced, but they you bite into a piece of beef, and it’s just hard to process – why is this texture in my mouth with this taste?

Maybe I’m not selling this well, so let me try this – holy hell, this pie is good. A few notes about this recipe:

It makes enough filling for two to three pies, so feel free to cut it in half.

I found that I had plenty of liquid without adding the liquor the meat was cooked in, and I didn’t add it.

If you can’t find suet, you can use half as much butter or beef tallow (for some reason, my butcher had the rendered tallow, but not suet).

You can find pre-cut, candied citron online and at specialty grocers.

I put a normal pie crust on top of my pie, not a puff pastry crust as the recipe suggested.

Old cookbooks love assuming that you just know the proper temperature to cook things at. This did well in the oven for 50 minutes at 400°F.


5 cups chopped cooked beef
2 cups chopped beef suet
7½ cups chopped apples
3 cups cider
½ cup vinegar
1 cup molasses
5 cups sugar
¾ lb citron finely chopped
2½ cups whole seedless raisins
1½ cups raisins, finely chopped
Juice 2 lemons
Juice 2 oranges
1 tablespoon mace
2 tablespoons cinnamon
2 tablespoons cloves
2 tablespoons allspice
2 nutmeg grated
2 tablespoons lemon extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup brandy
Liquor in which meat was cooked


Mix ingredients in order given and season with salt. Reduce liquor in which meat was cooked to three cups. Add to mixture bring to boiling point and let simmer one and one half hours.

Line a perforated tin pie plate with plain paste and fill with mince meat.Wet edges of under crust with cold water cover with upper crust of puff paste and press edges together. Ornament with a rim and perforate upper crust that steam may escape.

From What to Have for Dinner: Containing Menus with the Recipes Necessary for Their Preparation by Fannie Merritt Farmer (1905)

Baked Indian Pudding


Just a few ingredients deliver big flavor. I couldn’t stop taking spoonfulls of this. I baked it at 250°F. A gill is equal to half a cup.


Three pints of milk
Ten heaping tablespoonfuls of Indian meal
Three gills of molasses
A piece of butter as large as a hen’s egg


Scald the meal with the milk and stir in the butter and molasses and bake four or five hours. Some add a little chopped suet in place of the butter.

From Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-book (1871)

Thanksgiving Pudding

For the crackers in this, I used no-salt-on-top saltines, and I cooked it at 250°F.


3 cups milk grated
1⅓ cups rolled crackers
1 cup sugar
¼ cup melted butter
5 eggs
½ cup cream
½ grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup raisins seeded
¼ cup citron finely cut
¼ cup currants


Scald milk pour over crackers and let stand one hour. Add sugar, butter, eggs, well beaten, cream, spices, and fruits. Turn into a buttered mould set in pan of hot water and bake in a slow oven three hours, stirring after the first half hour of the cooking to prevent fruit from settling Remove from mould. This pudding may be baked the day before it is needed and reheated for serving. If a convenient sized mould is not at hand a deep bread pan will serve as a desirable substitute.

From What to Have for Dinner: Containing Menus with the Recipes Necessary for Their Preparation by Fannie Merritt Farmer (1905)

Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The Smart Set, McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel, The Huffington Post, and The Smew. Her book with photographer Michael Reali, Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom, was released in November 2011 by Quirk Books. She's currently the senior editor at the frugal living and personal finance site Wise Bread, and a regular guest on American Public Media’s Marketplace Money.


  1. PumpkinKing says:

    This article can go straight to hell. #PumpkinPieOverEverything

  2. Great looking and sounding recipes. I have been trying for about an hour to find online a recipe for baked stuffed pumpkin I saw on TV many years ago. It could have been good old Martha Stewart, or even a rerun of Auntie Julia Childs, I don’t recall. What I remember is, they were discussing how the early American pilgrims would have hollowed out a pumpkin of its seeds and stringy bits (preserved the seeds of course for later). Then into the pumpkin they would put chunks of pumpkin meat, spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, butter, sweet cream, perhaps a bit of salt, maybe some molasses, and then put the top on it and bake the whole thing. Sound familiar? They may have even added nuts. All I know is it looked delicious!

  3. dof says:

    don’t be a hater – The Great Pumpkin

  4. Valerie says:

    Pumpkin pie is always good, but Indian Pudding is better. I used to make it for Thanksgiving, but gave it up for some reason – perhaps because I ate most of it until I was almost sick! Maybe I will try it again this year, but I think I remember adding raisins to it.

  5. Emmy says:

    I will never be convinced that raisins are a treat.

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