Ode to the Great Pumpkin [Pie]: Speak, Memory*

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

~ John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Pumpkin,” 1850

Some people moan and descend straight into mourning with the first frost. Not me. You’ll find me in my kitchen, with clanging pans and steaming windows, eager to put aside the perpetual salads and raw cucumbers of summer.

Yesterday afternoon, I baked my first pumpkin pie of the season.

Yes, I confess: I basically follow the recipe on the label of the Libby’s can of pumpkin purée. Just to show you that I don’t slavishly follow recipes, I add a 1/4 t. of vanilla and use heaping spoonfuls of all the spices, as well as big hit of freshly grated nutmeg. Sometimes I use cream instead of evaporated milk, something that actually isn’t so out of line, because some vintage cookbooks of the 19th century mention using milk or a mixture of cream and milk.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

And yes, I know that making your own purée is much more earth-friendly. I’m all for that. But since I cannot find those nice little sugar pumpkins and other types for sale right now the recipe, I use the “traditional” method, as I know it. My mother never used anything but Libby’s. I am sure my grandmothers struggled with the food mill method of creating purée from boiled or roasted pumpkin.

Interestingly enough,  Libby’s now recommends mixing the ingredients somewhat differently from a label I pasted into a notebook years ago. Mix the sugar, salt, and spices together first, and then add this mixture to another bowl with another mixture of eggs and pumpkin. Pour in the milk/cream. This new method requires using two bowls instead of one … . I’m not sure it saved much time, but it seemed easier than measuring out each spice and adding the ingredients in order, according to the old instructions.

But regardless of the mixing method, some things simply don’t change when it comes to pumpkin pies. The smell of the pie baking brings back all sorts of memories. In autumn, special foods appeared on the table at my house. My mother never bought butter except for holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. During the rest of the year, she put slippery cubes of margarine in the butter dish, a telling testimony to her frugality born of the Great Depression.  Because of their rarity, the sweetness of whipped cream and the richness of real butter forever engraved their tastes on my tongue. You’ll find real butter on my table now, every day. But I swear that  each time I smear butter on a slice of bread and take that first bite, childhood taste memories of eating butter briefly flit through my subconscious.

Other ingredients do the same thing for me.

I don’t know about you, but I nearly swoon when I catch a whiff of Saigon cinnamon. I try to restrain myself and not dump too much to the custard. The rich aroma of freshly grated nutmeg pump up the flavor of the pie, too, not to mention cloves and ginger. The medieval overlay of these spices causes me to think about the ties to my own cultural past. Because of that, I strongly associate autumn with the aroma of these spices.

I’m intrigued by the fact that I’m standing in my kitchen in Virginia – one of the first areas settled by English men and women from 17th-century England, some of whom were my own ancestors – and I’m baking a dish based on flavors and techniques dating back to those days. And even longer, of course. Baked puddings abound in traditional English cooking. Yes, pumpkin pie is basically a baked pudding, even though it goes by the name “custard pie” these days and wears a crust.

Served with whipped cream – and I like it whipped until one more smack with the whisk would make butter – pumpkin pie surely stands up there other iconic cultural foods like foie gras and  wiener schnitzel.

It’s not only for dessert any more, either. Just like many people in the past, I find pie to be  a great breakfast food. Cold cereal just doesn’t cut it for me these days, not that I ever really thanked Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg for their contributions to American cuisine in the form of extruded cereals.

I’ll probably make another pie very soon. For some reason, I see just a small sliver left in the pie pan … .

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

*With thanks to Vladimir Nabokov.

© 2012, 2015 C. Bertelsen

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