The truth about pumpkin pie

November 23, 2011

Now that it's the week of Thanksgiving, it's the right time around here to blog about the food, according to some. Others have gone ahead and done it anyway—and may now want to cover their eyes, because I am going to tell you the truth about pumpkin pie.

Please don't get me wrong. I believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I also believe that Native Americans saved the Pilgrims at Plymouth from starvation and all together they celebrated with the first Thanksgiving dinner.

I want to believe.

But when faced with facts, sometimes it's hard to believe what you once believed. And that's OK. Sometimes, it's even better.

So the truth about pumpkin pie? Or should I say truths? There are many. Ready?

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

First: It's not pumpkin, at least not the adorable round orange sugar pie pumpkin of your dreams. Some say that the pumpkin pie you've been eating should actually be called squash. And according to others, that's OK.

Most of the p-pies you've eaten in your life have probably been made from canned pumpkin. And the most popular brand of canned pumpkin is Libby's. And Libby's uses their own specially bred Dickinson's pumpkin—and yes, some say it's squash. Thanks to Libby's HQ, Morton, Ill. is the pumpkin capital of the world.

Libby's is open about their Dickinsons, and actually shows the large, tan pumpkins/squashes in a video.

Another truth about pumpkin pie, despite young Claire's ultimate pumpkin pie origin story from Bon Appétit via Epicurious: the pumpkin pie as we know it was not "introduced to the holiday table at the Pilgrim's [sic] second Thanksgiving in 1623." This is culinary legend. According to historians, including those at Plimouth Plantation, the Wampanoag Native Americans did show the Pilgrims how to grow pumpkins, and cook them roasted and stewed, filled with fruit, nuts, and/or meat.

The pumpkin custard pie as we know it, according to culinary historians, likely evolved through the pumpkin's travels from the Americas, back to Europe, probably through France and England, before finally landing back on American Thanksgiving tables.

The biggest truth about pumpkin pie is that it's not just about the pumpkin. For me, it's the alchemy among the pumpkin, spices, crust, and whipped cream. Go ahead and use canned pumpkin—or squash or even sweet potato. But please, use good, fresh spices; make your own crust; and whip the cream yourself. Go to Spice House, linger in the aromas, and choose your own spices, which they'll carefully package as if in an apothecary, or simply buy the Pumpkin Pie Spice. Make your own crust. It's not as hard as you think. If you really can't handle a rolled pie crust, then make Alton Brown's gingersnap crust; it's nothing more than crushing cookies and melting butter. And please, whip your own cream—at least whip your own cream. Fresh, local cream is so surprisingly naturally sweet, you won't even need to add sugar. Add rum or bourbon instead.

The truth about pumpkin pie is that it's easier than you think. And better than you thought.

And the pies above? On top, sweet potato; below, pumpkin. Both baked by my friend, the pie queen, Catherine Lambrecht.