The Wrong Pie

by Kieran Healy on November 25, 2004

Thanksgiving is one of America’s best ideas. Appropriately it is intimately associated with one of America’s worst inventions, the Pumpkin Pie. I say “appropriately” because such antinomies are common in American life. North and South, Red States and Blue States, expensive gourmet coffee and never a spoonful of real cream to put in it what do you mean you only have the kind that sprays out of a can never mind no that’s fine. On such foundational tensions is America built. I’m sure Alexis de Toqueville has a line about this somewhere in _Democracy in America_. Something about the Pumpkin containing the Seeds of its own Destruction — no wait, that was Marx in Vol. III of _Theorien über den Wurzelgemüse_. For de Tocqueville, pumpkin pie is the fulcrum of the argument developed in “Book II, Chapter 14”: of _Democracy in America_, where he shows “How the taste for physical gratifications is united in America to love of freedom and attention to public affairs.” A taste for physical gratification that is fed with pumpkin pie is sure to kindle a strong love of freedom (from the obligation to eat any more) and a concomitant commitment to public affairs (especially the effort to ban the thing once and for all).

I admit this may be a minority reading of de Tocqueville, though surely a wholly plausible one of Marx. But a number of figures in pie scholarship may be against me. Although I have not been “able to trace”: a specific pumpkin-related discussion by the “best-known”: of the world’s two leading pie authorities (the “other one”: is similarly silent on the matter), there is “some evidence”: that Fafnir is strongly pro-pumpkin. (“If a pumpkin pie is not a pie, well then I do not want to live in a world with your cold mechanical robot pies!”) This is a worry. The pumpkin pie is generally neglected in the social science literature, in my view rightly so. Milton Friedman “once commented”: that “Most economic fallacies derive … from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie”, but the pie’s actual substance was left unspecified by him. Neoclassical economics assumed away the pumpkin by fiat, a move that goes back at least as far as Walras. He found that the tatonnement process could not plausibly be completed as long as the “auctioneer”: was left with a shitload of pumpkin that he couldn’t get off his hands for love or money. It re-entered the philosophical literature in Wittgenstein, who got it from Sraffa, but his solution is unknown — although in 2001 his grave in Cambridge was “found to have a pork pie on top of it”: (no, really, it was), and also a “Mr Kipling Cake”: — perhaps evidence of efforts at solution via reduction to problems already solved.

At any rate, my plan is to avoid the pumpkin altogether and make an apple crumble instead. I have a lot of things to be thankful for today, and I hope you do as well — and if one of them is the courage to face up to reality and just eat the nutmeg out of the jar this year instead of using pumpkin puree as a substrate for it, so much the better for you.



Andrew 11.25.04 at 8:11 am

Oh come on… Pumpkin pie is delicious and quite possibly the best part of Thanksgiving! I miss it now that I’m in England…

An (American) friend of mine once told me a story about how she spent a year at Oxford, and when her college put on ‘Thanksgiving’ for the American students, they deliberately mangled the pumpkin pie because they couldn’t believe anyone would want to eat something that tastes like what real pumpkin pie tastes like!


dsquared 11.25.04 at 8:21 am

Eduoard de Pomiane, the French gastronome and nutritionist noted that in his youth, the shops used to have pumkins sitting outside the shop as an inviting display, whereas by the time he wrote his book, they had moved them inside and onto a little wooden stool. He also noted that all the neighbourhood dogs used to stop next to the pumpkins “for a while”, and that while food perhaps no longer had that special tang of his youth, the stool was probably a material positive contribution to public health.


JennyD 11.25.04 at 9:36 am

May I offer a musical recommendation? “Finger the Pie” by Damnation TX, off the album Half Mad Moon. Available on ITunes. Might help get you through this pie thing.


Chris Lawrence 11.25.04 at 9:48 am

Pumpkin pie is quite delicious; clearly all you naysayers have never had it properly prepared.


Duane 11.25.04 at 10:19 am

Pity the poor pumpkin, a sadly under-appreciated vegetable! Pumpkin pie is delicious, although it must be served with fresh cream, which may be a problem in philistine nations where ‘cream’ comes from cans.

I find it hard to get decent pumpkins in the UK. All the shops seem to have are butternut squash — a tasteless mediocrity of a vegetable.


bad Jim 11.25.04 at 10:22 am

Damned nutritious, too, chock full of beta carotene. Better cold than warm, and can be eaten by hand without getting one’s fingers sticky. Definitely more user-friendly than a meat pie.

Nevertheless, it may not be the best foundation for those who wish to make the pie higher.


Mrs Tilton 11.25.04 at 10:23 am

Chris Lawrence is wrong. Improperly prepared, pumpkin pie is bad. Properly prepared it is Evil.

May I suggest you try a pecan pie instead. I once had a slice in southern America (where the waitress corrected my pronunciation – ‘Honey, a PE-can goes under your bed at night’). It was love at first bite and I now make them at least a few times a year. I have an excellent if slightly unorthodox recipe that I would be happy to send you. You must caution diabetic people not to approach within ten paces of the pie.

Not that pumpkins deserve our contempt. Far from it; we should respect them enough that we do not empie them. Instead, make them into a soup, with each serving ladled into a small hollowed-out pumpkin of its own.


Rob 11.25.04 at 11:05 am

Not being American, I have no idea what pumpkin pie is like, so I’m not really qualified to comment on it. However, I can say that butternut squash is very good roasted with olive oil and garlic, and that you can get pumpkins in the UK, because I made a risotto with one around Halloween (it may be that you can only get them at Halloween). The risotto, by the way, was very good (apparently the area around Mantua in northern Italy does lots of things with pumpkin: the stuffed pasta is supposedly particularly good).


JamesW 11.25.04 at 11:23 am

“the best-known of the world’s two leading pie authorities”: if Kieran’s purpose is to provoke grammatical complaint, I’m happy to oblige.


Jason Kuznicki 11.25.04 at 12:47 pm

Make it from scratch; use fresh pumpkin. Boil it. Strain, don’t puree. Throw in about a cup of Irish whiskey, some chopped hazelnuts, all the usual spices, plus cardamom.

I’ve never once had complaints about MY pumpkin pie–Except from people who like the godawful frozen prefab kind.


Styrian Oak 11.25.04 at 12:59 pm

Nothing, repeat nothing can compete with thick soup made of pumpkins from Styria (based on a good plain consomme of course, and with the help of a table spoon creme fraiche or two spoons of fresh sour cream). Add some roasted pumpkin seeds, croutons, and a dash of Styrian “Kernöl” (pumpkin seed oil), and you have a starter that’s really delicious. The Governator loves it.


Tracy 11.25.04 at 3:59 pm

Brits don’t understand pumpkins. Americans on the whole either have their food too sweet and fatty or too low-fat and ‘healthy’. Commercial pie pastries are almost always depressing.

Adding these things up however does not amount to a blanket condemnation of pumpkin pies. Even in the best, admittedly, the texture can be a bit bland and they are best enjoyed with other dishes rather than as the basis of your whole diet, but the best are definitely very good indeed and should not be dismissed from culinary consideration.


digamma 11.25.04 at 5:01 pm

Make whatever type of pie you like, Kieran. My mother, an Irish export like yourself, lets all her culinary creativity run wild on Thanksgiving, and the holiday is all the better for it.

I never go to Starbucks – they really don’t have cream? I know Au Bon Pain does.


Jason G. Williscroft 11.25.04 at 5:33 pm

Fine. But you haven’t truly experienced the sentimental—nay, religious—urge to participate in wholehearted Thanksgiving until you’ve tasted the true American original: the sweet potato pie.

Pumpkins are late-comers, upstarts, and may only be forgiven their intrusion on the Thanksgiving sideboard in consideration of the sensible avoidance of unnecessary Halloween waste.

There’s still time! I’ve posted an adaptation of Fannie Farmer’s recipe here.


rosalind 11.25.04 at 9:38 pm

Blueberry pie is the best of pies and yes, pumpkin pie is an atrocity.


bza 11.25.04 at 9:56 pm

That should be “über _die_ Wurzelgemüse.” Or “das.” But no “den.”

And everything made with sweet potatoes is disgusting, unless it’s fried or curried. Prefereably both.


chris waigl 11.25.04 at 10:22 pm

Das Wurzelgemüse. Only das, except if you want to form a questionable plural of Gemüse. And as far as I’m aware, pumpkins aren’t Wurzelgemüse.

Bon appétit.


bza 11.25.04 at 10:40 pm

I stand corrected, and blush.


Anthony 11.25.04 at 10:42 pm

Pumpkins are noble and in Australia are treated with respect – by baking them, making soup, risotto, whatever. (We can even accept Flo’s scones). Not ‘pumpkin pie’ though. This hideous concoction is an abomination in the eyes of all right-thinking people.


Hektor Bim 11.26.04 at 3:57 am

I find pumpkin pie delicious, but I do find pecan pie the best. I grew up in Louisiana (Cajun country), and everyone there said puh-kahn, so pronunication clearly varies from one part of the South to another. I personally find pee-can grating, but hey, different strokes for different folks.


derrida derider 11.26.04 at 4:08 am

Pumpkins are great food – for pigs.

Anthony, here’s one Aussie who doesn’t revere pumpkin – too much roast Queensland Blue in my childhood.


derrida derider 11.26.04 at 4:09 am

Pumpkins are great food – for pigs.

Anthony, here’s one Aussie who doesn’t revere pumpkin – too much roast Queensland Blue in my childhood.


Anthony 11.26.04 at 1:01 pm

Ha! Saying it twice doesn’t make it true DD.
That said the old Bluey can be a bit variable.


Gozer 11.27.04 at 2:43 am

You all need to make your pumpkin pies with cream cheese and rum.

Truely the ambrosia feasted upon by the gods.


anon 11.27.04 at 7:39 pm

Pumpkin pie doesn’t taste like pure nutmeg unless the cook’s hand slipped. While it isn’t my favorite pie (I, too, favor pecan, pronounced pe – CAHN, the Texas state nut), made with cream, brown sugar and fresh ginger it is very good.

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