We are so sorry for our beloved apples, but Pumpkin is the true and most traditional ingredient in homemade American pie. As every year, the expected Thenksgiving dinner is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November and the frenzy for traditional dishes is more present than ever. One of the all-time favorites is pumpkin pie. In fact, it’s no coincidence that in the run-up to the Thanksgiving holiday, pumpkin sales are increasing by leaps and bounds. After all, it is one of the most deeply rooted traditions in American culture. But it was not always like this. Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is now a symbol of sweet national unity, yet it was once a hotly contested battleground in America’s original culture war. In the 19th century, the humble pumpkin became a totem in the fight to abolish slavery in America.
According to references from culinary historian Cindy Ott, the history of this American icon is quite curious. In the mid-1800s, eating pumpkins was a matter of identity politics. And the same could be said of Thanksgiving itself. When Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a November 4, 1863, it was the culmination of a long campaign for the abolitionist Thanksgiving Day, Pumpkin lover and home economics icon Sarah Josepha Hale. Lincoln framed it as a call to “Heal the wounds of the nation and restore it”, and the declaration became an annual tradition for American presidents.
Later, Sarah Josepha Hale; campaigned with five presidents of the United States to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. However, some in the Confederacy condemned the Thanksgiving declaration as a political ploy. Still, the Thanksgiving celebration was another example of how New Englanders cared for themselves and told them how to live. It is no coincidence that fiery editorial headlines were released against Thanksgiving in Richmond at the same time: “This is an annual custom of that town, hitherto celebrated with devout oblations of pumpkin pie and roast turkey.”
According to Ott’s references, for many years after the Civil War many southern families rejected Thanksgiving and especially pumpkin pie as cultural artifacts of the Yankees. This is striking, considering that pumpkins grow well in the South and recipes for pumpkin pie or pudding have been around for a long time. Inclusive they are referenced in Mary Randolph’s famous 1824 cookbook “The Virginia Housewife.”
After these references the million dollar question is to know, How did the New England anti-slavery movement get sole custody of the pumpkin? The reality is that it is complicated and in a way we have to say that pumpkins have an abolitionist history.
Pumpkins were always a strange romance:
The orange field squash type is an impressively massive crop. However, they also tend to be dry, stringy, and a bit tasteless. Unlike other varieties of domesticated squash, the field pumpkin never prevailed in the everyday urban market of the 19th century. Contrary to legend, it had no place of pride in the pilgrimage festival of 1621, which few associated with Thanksgiving until decades after the holiday had become a national tradition. In fact, no one from that party recorded serving pumpkins. According to Ott: “If it was served, it was like a tasty side dish. It was by no means a special part of the occasion. “
What actually happened is that the native squash was a fast-growing source of livelihood, a staple but not a beloved food for early coastal settlers. In the 19th century, increasingly picky eaters preferred tastier winter and summer squash. Also, it is known that fast-growing field squash was often grown in manure containers or in the middle of rows of corn, and It was used as food for dairy cows so that the milk had a richer flavor. This happened in the rural south, which was the province of small, poor farms, but in the urban north, pumpkins became something that city dwellers only found while taking healthy trips to the countryside to appreciate nature.
This coincided with a change in the way New England celebrated the ancient religious tradition of Thanksgiving. After the fast day, the tradition had morphed into a celebration of autumn prosperity, with a large rustic menu on the table: amid blueberries and turkey, pumpkin pie became a supreme item.
In fact, there is a strong reference written by an American Farmer correspondent in 1833: “The idea of celebrating Thanksgiving without a pumpkin pie is almost unbearable.” The rest is history, as the storytellers of the time set out to fill the world with New England Thanksgiving fantasies that almost invariably ended with pumpkin pie. Others focused on writing poetic odes to the humble pumpkin.
Among them was Thanksgiving activist Hale. Who was the editor of the very famous Godey’s Lady’s Book and author of the children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, Hale was the Martha Stewart of her time. He also had a habit of writing letters to state governors on behalf of Thanksgiving. Like many New England writers who loved pumpkin pie and Turkey Day, Hale was a deeply religious voice against slavery.
Finally: pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving were celebrations of better and more godly agriculture without the institution of slavery.
Hale’s state Thanksgiving campaign had been very successful in the early 1800s, helping to push statements in 29 states in the 1850s. But as the fight for slavery intensified and the Civil War loomed, commentators from the Southern states began to reject any cultural aggression from the North. The state of Virginia, in particular, did not want to be a part of it.
Even for decades after the Civil War, southern states were wary of the Yankee holiday. As each president made his annual Thanksgiving proclamation, some southern states moved their own Thanksgiving days to a different day as a form of resistance. Texas refused to fully recognize the holiday until the 1880s. It wasn’t until 1941 that the Thanksgiving holiday was enshrined in federal law.
As for pumpkin pie, it remained a largely Yankee food for years. Arguably, it didn’t fully spread south until the 20th century. and with it came the advent of massively marketed pumpkin pie filling. The rest is history since it is a dish that over time has adapted to the lifestyle of different regions in the United States, and nowadays it is impossible to visualize a Thanksgiving dinner and a warm autumn is him. However, as you can see, his story has a lot to tell.
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