BERGEN, N.J. — Sorry, apple. Pumpkin is the true home-baked American pie tradition. (Or maybe sweet potato, but more on that later.)
Each year on the fourth Thursday of November, America embarks on a pumpkin pie feeding frenzy unknown anywhere else in the world. In the lead-up to the Thanksgiving holiday, sales of pumpkin spike like a toddler’s blood sugar. Even people who don’t really like pumpkin pie often eat it anyway. After all, it’s tradition — as American as college sports and unused vacation days.
But it wasn’t always so.
The Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is now a symbol for sweet, sweet national unity. But it was once a hotly contested battleground in America’s original culture war. In the 1800s, the humble pumpkin became a totem of the fight to abolish slavery in America.
“There are these New England abolitionists writing saccharin-sweet stories about pumpkins,” said historian Cindy Ott, author of “Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon.” “They very consciously saw these pumpkin farms in contrast to the immoral plantation economy and plantation farms in the South. They very specifically and explicitly compare those two landscapes.”
In the mid-19th century, according to Ott, eating pumpkins was a matter of identity politics. And much the same could be said of Thanksgiving itself.
When Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving on the fourth day of November in 1863, it was the culmination of a long pro-Thanksgiving campaign by abolitionist, 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.
But some in the Confederacy decried the Thanksgiving declaration as a rank political ploy. Worse, Thanksgiving was yet another example of self-regarding New Englanders telling them how to live.
“This is an annual custom of that people, heretofore celebrated with devout oblations to themselves of pumpkin pie and roast turkey,” read a fiery anti-Thanksgiving editorial in Richmond.
For years after the Civil War, according to Ott, many Southern families refused Thanksgiving and especially pumpkin pie as cultural artifacts of the Yankees. This is true even though pumpkins grow just fine in the South and pumpkin pie or “pudding” recipes had long existed there, including in Mary Randolph’s famous 1824 cookbook “The Virginia Housewife.”
So how did the New England anti-slavery movement get sole custody of the pumpkin? It’s complicated.
The abolitionist history of the pumpkin
Pumpkins were always a strange romance.
The orange field pumpkin is impressively massive. But it is also dry, stringy and a bit tasteless.
Unlike other varieties of a domesticated squash, the field pumpkin never took hold in the everyday urban market of the 1800s. It was too ungainly. Too cheap to be profitable.
Contrary to legend, it didn’t have any place of pride in the Pilgrims’ 1621 feast, which few associated with Thanksgiving until decades after the holiday had become a national tradition. In fact, no one from that feast recorded serving pumpkins at all.
“If it was served, it was just as kind of like a savory side dish,” Ott said. “It was not in any way a special part of the occasion. It was probably served the day before and the day after, too.”
The native pumpkin was a fast-growing source of sustenance, a staple but not a beloved food for early colonists up and down the coast. By the 19th century, increasingly picky eaters preferred more flavorful winter and summer squashes.
The fast-growing field pumpkin was often grown in manure bins or amid cornrows and used as feed for dairy cows to make milk taste richer. In the rural South, it was the province of poor and little farms, said Ott, not really something you’d get sentimental about.
But in the urban North, it became something city dwellers encountered only while on salutary trips out to the country to appreciate “nature.”
For the New England literati, the pumpkin came to symbolize a noble and primitive way of life that urbanites had left behind. Even as farmers were derided as rubes and “pumpkin eaters” — nothing spoils your appreciation of a farm’s natural beauty quite like encountering actual farmers, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson — pumpkins became nostalgic totems of abundance and connection to the land.
This coincided with a change in how New England celebrated the old religious tradition of Thanksgiving. Once marked by a day of fasting, the tradition had morphed into a celebration of autumn prosperity, with all God’s rustic spoils laid out on the table. Amid cranberry and turkey, pumpkin pie reigned supreme.
“The thought of keeping Thanksgiving without a pumpkin pie is surely almost unsupportable,” wrote a correspondent for American Farmer in 1833.
Storytellers of the day filled the world with proto-Hallmark Channel fantasies of New England Thanksgiving that almost invariably ended with pumpkin pie, said Ott. Others wrote poetic odes to the honest pumpkin.
Prominent among them was Thanksgiving activist Hale. As the editor of wildly popular Godey’s Lady’s Book and the author of nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Hale was the Martha Stewart of her day. She 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. She depicted the North’s idyllic little pumpkin-filled farms as morally superior to the vast slave plantations of the rural South.
“I have no doubt that many of the slaveholders would rejoice to have the southern states entirely freed from slaves, and cultivated in the same fashion as we Yankees do in the North,” wrote Hale.
The Northern farmer, just by existing, was a natural-born abolitionist, she argued. Pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving were celebrations of a better, more godly way of agriculture without the institution of slavery.
The Southern Thanksgiving resistance
Hale’s campaign for state Thanksgivings had been largely successful in the early 1800s, helping spur declarations in 29 states by the 1850s. But as the fight over slavery intensified and the Civil War loomed, commentators in Southern states began to reject any Northern cultural aggressions.
The state of Virginia, in particular, wanted no part of it.
In a letter to Hale, stridently pro-slavery Virginia Gov. Henry Wise inveighed against New England’s abolitionist aims, calling out “this theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving, which has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics.’”
An 1856 editorial in the Richmond Whig likewise decried the “repugnant” holiday, opining that it incurred nothing but Northern idleness and drunkenness.
Even for decades after the Civil War, Southern states remained leery of the Yankee holiday. As each president made his annual Thanksgiving proclamation, some Southern states moved their own Thanksgivings to a different day as a form of resistance. Texas refused to acknowledge the holiday altogether until the 1880s.
“It’s only after Reconstruction that the Southern states finally say, well, we realized we’ve finally got to get back in the fold and get with the program — to show that we are after all American — that the Southern states start to embrace Thanksgiving,” said historian James Cobb, in a 2018 interview with Arizona State University publication Zocalo.
Not until 1941 did the date of the Thanksgiving holiday become enshrined in federal law.
As for pumpkin pie, it remained a mostly Yankee food for years. Arguably, it didn’t fully spread through the South until the 20th century and the advent of mass-marketed pumpkin pie filling.
“I think it happens more in the ‘40s and ‘50s of the last century,” said Frank Clark, foodways historian at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. “It’s something that happens as we homogenize the cultures a little bit more with TV and fast food in supermarkets. You start to see some of these things move around from place to place and become more common in places where they weren’t necessarily prior to that.”
Before that, said Clark, the paucity of pumpkin pie in the South may have been in part a matter of preference, and of pre-existing traditions like sweet potato pie.
Enslaved Africans who were cooks in much of the South had brought with them a love of the African yam, which wasn’t available in the New World. The sweet potato became a substitute, and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are often still called yams today.
“A lot of these African things just merged into the Virginia diet,” Clark said. “If you take a look at the first cookbook written and published in Virginia, ‘The Virginia Housewife’ by Mary Randolph, there are at least four or five recipes of clearly African origins.”
And so rather than eat the pumpkin pie loved by abolitionists, white Southerners instead cooked a sweet potato version made according to the preferences of formerly enslaved Africans.
But during the 20th century, New England’s yen for pumpkins swelled into a truly national love affair, from the porch front jack o’lantern to the pumpkin spice latte and throwback decorative gourds. Some small farms make more money with eight weeks of pumpkin patch than during the whole rest of the year, Ott said.
The sweet potato pie endures as a parallel and Southern Thanksgiving tradition, and also in the homes of many African American families who migrated north.
“I don’t think many people in New England eat sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving,” Ott said. “But there’s a lot of people in the South who do, and it’s because of this cultural history. It’s not because the South can’t grow pumpkins. It is because of the cultural and political history of the South.”
Matthew Korfhage is a food and culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. Follow Matthew on Twitter @matthewkorfhage.