Fun Dootsie Fact: making pie dough is my meditation.
I usually make Smitten Kitchen’s All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Crust. I do the mixing by hand. (If you use this recipe to make a single-crust pie, I recommend leaving your edges fairly thick. I always seem to get a fair bit of shrinkage in the oven.)
What we know: pies certainly came across the ocean with colonizers. The oldest pie crusts weren’t designed to be eaten at all, but rather to contain the filling in something that could be brought out and presented on the table. Around the time of the American Revolution, we changed the terminology from “coffin” to “crust,” which is a markedly less metal choice.
If we’re talking about American Thanksgiving menus, pie is gonna come up. Many families couldn’t imagine the day without a slice of this delightful dessert. Here’s a little mini-dive into some of the most popular slices to serve on this holiday.
While pecan trees are a species of hickory native to the United States, cultivation of them was tricky. The most success came through grafting, as trees planted from a nut tend to bear drupes (not nuts) that have a really WIDE range of taste. An enslaved man, Antoine, was the most successful and innovative horticulturist to take on pecan trees, and the US’s commercial pecan farming rested squarely on his ability to create crops of consistent, delicious pecans.
There are lots of rumors about where this pie actually originated. What we know is that the oldest recipe found was in 1886, though it was surely a recipe southern cooks had been bandying about with (possibly as a take on chess pie.) Pecan pie was not invented by the Karo Syrup company, though they did manage to popularize the syrup-based pie by slapping the recipe on their labels for years.
As usual, Max Miller has a phenomenal episode on this topic over on Tasting History, along with a truly scrummy-looking historical recipe for no-syrup pecan pie.
We’ve discussed that the first pumpkin pies were really custards baked inside of the pumpkin, more in the line of pot pie than pie-pie. The 1796 American Cookery by Amelia Simmons contained two pumpkin pie recipes, and one was custard-based, similar to what we nosh on today.
In her (abolitionist!) novel Northwood, Sara Josepha Hale definitely talked the pumpkin pie up as the star of the Thanksgiving dessert table.
Pumpkin pie really caught on in 1929 when meat-canning company Libby’s… well, you know the rest. The consistent blend and predictable moisture made whipping up this custard pie easy as… I won’t say it, but you’re thinking it.
Sweet Potato Pie
Like so many things in American culinary history, we owe this gem to enslaved people. Used as an alternative to yams (which are a totally different tuber), the sweet potato became a staple of southern cuisine. The first printed recipes for sweet potato pie came out in the 18th century, though it was typically lumped in with savory vegetable sides.
If you’ve never had sweet potato pie, give it a try. Many families prefer it to pumpkin pie, or even do a 50/50 mix of pumpkin and sweet potato.
Apples aren’t native to the United States. Seeds were brought over by colonists, and apple pies existed in Europe – via France, the Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire – as early as 1390.
Amelia Simmons also published two recipes for apple pie in her 1796 cookbook, but it certainly existed in various forms all throughout the colonies. Easy, cheap access to apples meant people made them all over the country. But it wasn’t really A Thing until the 20th century. Between the world wars, media companies made apple pie an icon of American-ness. And since that point, apple pies have popped up at just about every function, including Thanksgiving.
"When you say that something is 'as American as apple pie,' what you're really saying is that the item came to this country from elsewhere and was transformed into a distinctly American experience.” - John Lehndorff of the American Pie Council to Food52
There’s no wrong pie to eat at Thanksgiving, aside from maybe “none.” Whether it’s a lovely cranberry tart or a chocolate silk icebox confection, pie and a cup of coffee is the perfect way to cap off the big meal.