What is Pumpkin Pie?

Chris Kohatsu

Without Thanksgiving, there is no pumpkin pie, and without pumpkin pie, there is no Thanksgiving. Such is the nature of holiday food traditions. Pumpkin pie is a dessert associated with the autumn season and mainly served during the Thanksgiving holiday. Some pumpkin pies have the consistency of pudding, while others are cake-like. There are thousands of recipes and variations of pumpkin pie, but almost all will agree it is to be served with a Thanksgiving meal. Some people enjoy pumpkin pie so much, they will also serve it during Christmas.

Pumpkins for making pie.
Pumpkins for making pie.

When the original settlers arrived in America, they were fascinated with the Native American use of pumpkin for food. These settlers soon developed their own recipes using gourds and squashes. Shortly after, a pumpkin dessert was created. The first recipes called for a pumpkin to be filled with milk and pumpkin flesh, and cooked for hours over a fire. When spices were available, they were added to the pumpkin milk mixture.

Pumpkin pie is typically seasoned with cinnamon.
Pumpkin pie is typically seasoned with cinnamon.

Decades later, pumpkin farmers would dry, roast, and can pumpkin flesh, as it would provide nourishment during long winter seasons. Preserved pumpkin was used in breads, sauces, puddings, and eventually, as pie filling. As pumpkin pie grew in popularity, so too, did demand for preserved pumpkin. In 1929, Libby’s Canned Pumpkin arrived in grocery stores, and pumpkin pie soon became a common dessert with Thanksgiving dinner. An estimated 50 million pumpkin pies are served each year during Thanksgiving.

Nutmeg is often used to season pumpkin pie.
Nutmeg is often used to season pumpkin pie.

Recipes for pumpkin pie have been simplified over time, and some recipes can be made in as little as fifteen minutes. It is expected that even the most novice cook will be able to create a pumpkin pie. After all, pre-made pie shells are available in both the frozen and ready-bake variety, and spices, such as cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg have been combined to form foolproof pumpkin pie spice. Finally, a can of evaporated milk and two eggs will complete a basic pie filling. Just combine the ingredients, then pour into the pie shell and bake at 425 degrees F (218 degrees C) for approximately an hour.

For those that would like to try making a true pumpkin pie from scratch, most recipes will call for the use of calabaza or sugar pumpkins. To roast pumpkin, cut open the pumpkins and scrape out the seeds. Split the pumpkin into wedges, and sprinkle with oil, sugar and spices. Roast at 425 degrees F (218 degrees C) for about an hour. Remove the pumpkin flesh from its skin and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Cloves are often used to season pumpkin pie.
Cloves are often used to season pumpkin pie.

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Discussion Comments


I absolutely love pumpkin pie, but I'm the only one in my family who does. I'm always looking for an easy pumpkin pie recipe I can cut down to make just one pie. I prefer to use canned pumpkin pie filling and add a significant amount of pumpkin pie spice. I don't think the traditional recipes call for enough of it. I also tend to undercook the pie a little so the crust doesn't get overly brown.

The other important ingredient in my kind of pumpkin pie is plenty of whipped topping. Some people tease me about having a little pie with my whipped cream, but I think the combination of the custardy pie filling and the cream help to balance out the spices.


I don't know if it's true or not, but I've heard that what a lot of people buy as "canned pumpkin" is actually butternut squash. Real pumpkin can be very stringy and hard to cook, so allegedly most commercial pumpkin pie fillings don't use it. People usually don't notice a difference because they don't eat homemade pumpkin pie that often and wouldn't know what butternut squash tasted like anyway. As long as the usual pumpkin pie spices are used and the texture seems right, then I don't mind if it's not really pumpkin myself.

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