With its spice-infused creamy, orange filling and crisp crust, there’s nothing quite like pumpkin pie to herald the arrival of the Thanksgiving holiday (though some might argue in favor of its other forms, from pumpkin bread to pumpkin ale). The pumpkin features uniquely in this fall holiday and the autumn weeks generally, remaining absent from other celebrations like the Fourth of July or Christmas. But at one point, the squash was as ubiquitous as bread—and sometimes even more so, as American colonists would rely on it to make bread when their harvest of wheat fell short. How did the pumpkin go from everyday produce to seasonal treat? It’s a story more than 10,000 years in the making.
To understand the surprising trajectory of the orange pumpkin, it’s important to know something of its life history. The cheerful pumpkin is known by the species name Cucurbita pepo—a species that also includes acorn squash, ornamental gourds and even zucchini. All these different forms of Cucurbita pepo are cultivars, varieties of the same species that are selected in certain forms by human farmers. And yes, they are technically fruits, though many refer to them colloquially as vegetables.
Before humans arrived in the Americas, wild forms of these squashes grew in natural abundance around floodplains and other disrupted habitats, with the help of enormous mammalian herbivores. Creatures like giant ground sloths, mastodons and gomphotheres (elephant-like animals) created the perfect environment for wild squashes, and when humans arrived and hunted the massive herbivores to extinction, many of the wild squashes and gourds went extinct as well. Those that survived managed to do so because humans continued growing them, making squashes (including in the pumpkin form) the first domesticated plant in the Americas. Archaeologists unearthed the oldest example of orange field pumpkin seeds in Oaxaca, Mexico and dated them to an astonishing 10,000 years—millennia before the appearance of domesticated corn or beans.
Initially, indigenous people used the squashes for their seeds and as containers, but by 2500 B.C. Native Americans in the Southwest were cultivating corn, beans and squash on farms. The crop spread across the Americas, with communities from the Haudenosaunee in the northeast (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy) to the Cherokee of the southeast planting and sometimes venerating the squash.
When Europeans arrived, they encountered the endemic crop everywhere. “Columbus mentioned them on his first voyage, Jacques Cartier records their growing in Canada in the 1530s, Cabeza de Vaca saw them in Florida in the 1540s, as did Hernando de Soto in the 1550s,” writes historian Mary Miley Theobald. Native Americans cooked the squashes in all manner of ways: roasting them in the fire, cutting them into stews, pounding the dried flesh into a powder, or drying strips of it into something like vegetable jerky. (At one point George Washington had his farm manager attempt the same preparation with Mount Vernon pumpkins, only for the man to report, “I tried the mode you directed of slicing and drying them, but it did not appear to lengthen their preservation.”)
For these colonists, the squashes provided an abundant source of nutrition, and they rarely distinguished one form of Cucurbita pepo from another. “Through the colonial era they used the words interchangeable for pumpkin or squash,” says Cindy Ott, the author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. As to whether the Pilgrims ate pumpkin at their iconic meal with Native Americans, Ott says there’s no mention of it in the written records, but people “probably ate it that day, the day before, and the day after.”
It wasn’t until the early-19th century that Americans began to distinguish between the different forms of Cucurbita pepo, when masses of people moved from the rural countryside to urban areas during the Industrial Revolution. Zucchini and other summer squashes were sold as cultivars in city markets; the pumpkin, however, remained on farms, used as livestock feed. City-dwellers, meanwhile, ached with nostalgia for their connection to the land, Ott says. By the middle of the century, popular songs pined for happy childhoods spent on the farm. The pumpkin served as a symbol of that farming tradition, even for people who no longer actually worked on farms. “The pumpkin has no economic value in this new industrial economy,” Ott says. “The other squashes are associated with daily life, but the pumpkin represents abundance and pure agrarian ideals.”
Pumpkin pie first appeared as a recipe in the 1796 cookbook American Cookery, published by New England writer Amelia Simmons, and was sold mainly in that region. When the dessert gained popularity, it was billed as a New England specialty. That connection to the North translated to the pumpkin being appropriated by abolitionists leading up to and during the Civil War, Ott says. Women who championed the anti-slavery cause also wrote poetry and short stories about pumpkins, praising them as a symbol of the resilient, northern family farmer. The status of the squash rose to national prominence in 1863, when President Lincoln, at the behest of numerous women abolitionists, named the fourth Thursday in November as a national holiday.
“The women who [helped create] Thanksgiving as a holiday were strong abolitionists, so they associated pumpkin farms with northern virtue and very consciously compared it to Southern immoral plantation life,” Ott says. “That feeds into how Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War, when the pumpkin was a pivotal player in the northern harvest.”
The link between Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie has continued to this day, with American farmers growing more than a billion pounds of pumpkin annually, the vast majority for Halloween and Thanksgiving. Urbanites travel out to family farms to buy their jack-o-lantern pumpkins, and visit the grocery store for canned pumpkin before the big holiday. For Ott, learning the history of the pumpkin was a lesson in how every-day objects can tell deeper stories.
“These very romantic ideas are about farm life and how Americans like to imagine themselves, because farming is hard work and most people wanted to leave the farm as soon as they could,” Ott says. “But [the pumpkin shows] how we think about nature, ourselves and our past. A humble vegetable can tell all these stories.”