This Is Why We Eat Pumpkin Pie at Thanksgiving

The original recipe from 1796 was actually for pumpkin pudding!

It's an unspoken rule that you can't have Thanksgiving dinner without serving a pumpkin pie for dessert—but have you ever wondered why Americans are so adamant about following their turkey with a baked pie topped with whipped cream? As it turns out, pumpkin pie is about as American as Thanksgiving itself, although it was almost certainly not served at the very first Thanksgiving.

The colonists and indigenous people ate pumpkins and squash frequently in the 1600s, so gourds were probably served at the first Thanksgiving. However, they didn't have butter, sugar, and other sweet ingredients to turn the pumpkins into dessert—which means there was no pie.

Double-Pumpkin Pie with Oat Crust
Andy Lyons

So how did we get from plain pumpkins to a whipped-cream-topped dessert? The iconic recipe actually has an interesting backstory: In 1796, a woman named Amelia Simmons published a cookbook titled American Cookery. It's considered to be the very first American cookbook and contains documentation of the kinds of new foods and recipes the American colonists began making after they left Europe. One recipe in this cookbook was for a pumpkin pudding made with nutmeg and allspice and served in a crust. Sounds familiar, right?

Over the last 400 years, what started out as a resourceful dessert—gourds and spices were plentiful at the time, while butter, sugar, and other sweet ingredients were not—has become a Thanksgiving tradition that's as iconic as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Since pumpkin was already associated with Thanksgiving dinner, it makes sense that the colonists began serving the pie at the big meal once the recipe was popularized.

So as you're planning this year's Thanksgiving dinner menu, make sure a homemade pumpkin pie is at the top of the dessert list. You can use real pumpkin of course (here's how to make pumpkin pie with a fresh pumpkin), but there's no shame in mixing up your pie from a can. Whichever route you choose, you have Amelia Simmons to thank for this crowd favorite.

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