Thanksgiving History: From Pumpkin Pie to Jell-O Molds
My family’s Thanksgiving table is a battleground of paradoxes. We make valiant efforts to evolve gastronomically with the likes of our heritage breed turkey or the challah rolls that I bake fresh that morning. But someway, somehow, the electric green Jell-o mold, complete with its horseradish cream top, always seems to wiggle its way into our carefully crafted tablescape. It keeps us humble really. For me in particular, it’s a heartwarmingly gauche reminder that I can play the part of food exploring enthusiast, but at the end of the day I am just a girl, celebrating with the people I love. And my people love the Jell-o mold. So if a green skyscraper jiggles whenever someone’s knee knocks the table leg, so be it.
Just as I will never escape my edible frienemy, so too must Thanksgiving bare the many faces of its own history. While this is just one chapter of a storied and contested past, I like it because it gives historical and political power to three Thanksgiving classics: pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and cranberry sauce.
You see, well before the Jell-O mold had taken its foothold in my family's heart, Thanksgiving was considered a “Yankee abolitionist holiday” - a thinly-veiled attempt to impose anti-slavery sentiments on the South. Pumpkin pie, an early symbol of the holiday, also got caught up in the mix, being labeled an "abolitionist dessert". This association has been largely credited to Northern abolitionist writers such as Sara Josepha Hale and Lydia Marie Childs, who lobbied for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. With tensions between the North and South running high and the country hurtling towards civil war, the belief was that a holiday of thankfulness would help heal the nation’s wounds.
The Thanksgiving debate was put on hold during the Civil War, but in 1863 President Lincoln went forward and declared it to be a national holiday. Of course just because Lincoln said so does not mean everyone jumped on board. But as time passed, a culinary smoke signal of holiday acceptance wafted through the air: the South was importing cranberries. The cranberry grows in the North, but more importantly, it is pumpkin pie’s Thanksgiving bedfellow. If the South was enjoying cranberry sauce, it must be embracing Thanksgiving.
Decades later, the pecan pie joined the holiday menu. Now this is where the food historians stop and my own theory begins. Just as the cranberry is a northern fruit, so is the pecan a southern nut. As Thanksgiving further embedded itself into our cultural fabric, I pose that this southern dessert, which was first recorded in the 1930s, evolved as the region's answer to the dominating pumpkin pie. If cranberries signaled Thanksgiving acceptance, then pecan pie is the full-blown love affair.
So this Thursday, as you feast your eyes on your family’s culinary traditions - delicious, gelatinous and otherwise - take a moment and reflect on the history lesson humming quietly on the table. That pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and pecan pie - they just want us all to get along. Even if it means making room for the Jell-O mold.
Pumpkin Ice Cream & Pecan Lace Cookies
This dessert is an homage, but also a tasty alternative, to the pumpkin and pecan pies. The pumpkin ice cream, à la David Lebovitz, goes perfectly with America's Text Kitchen Pecan Lace Cookies. Don't be deterred by the extra step of roasting the pumpkin, it's totally worth it. And the lace cookies, while delicate, are such a crowd pleaser you'll find yourself making them all year long.
- Make David Lebovitz's Pumpkin Ice Cream
- Tip - When the good Mr. Lebovitz says to roast the pumpkin in a "moderately hot" oven, go for 350℉, and roast until tender - about 30-40 minutes.
- Be prepared to either make lots of ice cream, or have another use for pumpkin puree. One pumpkin gave me enough puree for probably 4-5 quarts of ice cream, but I made two quarts and a pie instead.
- Adding the whiskey is just a suggestion, but I highly recommend it. It doesn't make the ice cream taste boozey, but it does give a nice hint of flavor, and keeps the ice cream's texture from getting rock hard in the freezer.
- Make America's Test Kitchen Lace Cookie Recipe (see below)
- To make the lace cookes and shape them as bowls:
- While the cookies are baking, invert a 5-6 beverage glasses onto a wire cooling rack.
- When the cookies come out of the oven, let them sit for a minute or two before using an offset spatula to lift each cookie, and set it over the bottom of the glass.
- Let the cookies cool on the glasses while you spoon the next batch of batter onto the cookie sheet.
America's Test Kitchen Lace Cookies:
- 4 T (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- 6 T packed dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1/2 t vanilla
- 1/8 t salt
- 3 T unbleached, all-purpose flour, sifted
- 1/2 cup pecans (or almonds) chopped fine
- 1/2 t heavy cream
- Pre-heat oven 350℉. Line a large baking sheet with parchment or a silpat
- In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the butter, brown sugar and corn syrup just to a boil, stirring frequently.
- Turn off the heat, beat in the vanilla, salt, flour, nuts and cream.
- Drop 5 rounded tablespoons of batter, 3" apart, on to the baking sheet. The cookies will spread, so be sure to stagger the cookies and give them plenty of room.
- Bake for 6-7 minutes (I find 7 minutes is perfect). The cookies should be spread thin, deep golden brown, and no longer bubbling.
- Let the cookies cool for 1-2 minutes. Test the cookies before moving them - if the cookie tears when you slide an offset spatula underneath it, give another 30 seconds to cool.
- To shape the cookies, drape them over your inverted cups, gently fold the edges down to create a deeper bowl.
- Store the cookies in an air tight container - they are very sensitive in to any moisture in the air. In fact, don't even bother making these if it's raining...