I always dreaded Thanksgiving. As a kid and once-picky eater, the holiday loomed at the end of November as a seven-hour obstacle course: I would sweep my plate out of the way of ladles of gravy, duck under toasts of bubbly Martinelli's, and dodge relatives who would inevitably stop me to ask why wasn't I eating and was I really a vegetarian on Thanksgiving, too?
The only thing that motivated me to sit in my seat and make up excuses — rather than lock myself in the bathroom with a plate of buttered rolls for sustenance — was the promise of pumpkin pie at the end of the night. I'd endure just about anything for pumpkin pie.
These days, pumpkin has a bad reputation thanks to the explosion of all things "pumpkin spice." What we think of as being "pumpkin," though, really isn't — the signature flavor is actually a fragrant, bronzy mix of cloves and nutmeg and cinnamon. The "pumpkin" part is less sexy: the stringy, squashy, mashy insides painstakingly clawed out of jack-o-lanterns in the making.
But blend it with the spices and there is no other flavor short of maybe cranberry sauce and eggnog that so transports an eater to a specific time and place: late autumn in America. After I overzealously stocked up on cans of pumpkin last year that I failed to bake my way through by March, my boyfriend innocently suggested I continue making pumpkin bread through the spring. The thought was obscene. While Starbucks is the chief offender in making people sick of pumpkin flavoring, it does one small thing right — it only makes pumpkin spice lattes seasonally, from about mid-September through the new year.
Pumpkin pie, on the other hand, is its own separate beast. While you could theoretically eat pumpkin pie throughout the fall, the dessert is so rich and heavy, and so begging to be doused in ice cream and rich whip cream, that it really calls for an occasion to be served. Pie purists might even say you can only eat it twice a year: After dinner on Thanksgiving, and on Christmas. Like a whiff of potpourri or the tinkle of Salvation Army bells outside the mall, the flavor of the pie's pumpkin custard filling is doing its job if it's rooting you right in place.
While we say things are as "American as apple pie," pumpkin is actually even more fitting. Pumpkins are native to the Americas, first cultivated in Central America around 5,500 B.C. The Wampanoag Indians and the Plymouth Colony pilgrims likely dined on the gourds at the "original Thanksgiving." The pies wouldn't have looked like how we consume them now, though: "An early New England recipe involved filling a hollowed-out pumpkin with spiced, sweetened milk and cooking it directly in a fire," History writes. No matter: The crust of the pie is often the least interesting part. As a kid, I'd often just eat out of it, leaving an empty L-shaped shell by the end.
There is no wrong way to eat pumpkin pie, after all. Some families might have secret recipes or favorite bakeries, but at a certain point, the quality of the pie becomes secondary to the quality of the ritual. A great deal of pumpkin pie I've consumed came out of noisy, round plastic carriers retrieved from a Safeway bakery's seasonal selection shelf. The pie might be transferred to a more presentable vehicle for the Thanksgiving table at some point in the night, or weary parents might simply offer up slices straight from the refrigerator to unused salad plates.
Even after all these years, I've never actually made my own pumpkin pie, due in part to the overwhelming results when you Google "pumpkin pie recipe," but mostly because I don't own a pie pan for the aforementioned reason that I would use it once a year. One ill-advised college Thanksgiving away from home, I even attempted to fulfill my craving with pumpkin pie vodka — not a recommended substitute.
This year, though, in a fit of uncharacteristic festivity, I ordered a pumpkin pie from a fantastic local bakery ahead of the holiday, unable to wait another week. When I opened up the box at home, the dark gold pie was revealed, complete with an oat crust thumbed into delicate scalloped edgings. My boyfriend and I eagerly raced through dinner before cutting ourselves fat slices and topping them off with picture-perfect swirls of whip cream.
This will be my seventh year spending Thanksgiving away from my family. I no longer duck ladles or dodge relatives; these days, I book a quiet dinner in the city somewhere with my boyfriend, and head home for the holidays on the West Coast at the end of December. But after eating those two large slices, I realized something about pumpkin pie that I'd missed before: With two slices gone, there was still so much pie left.
While there is nothing wrong with eating an entire pie alone (reader: we did), the single most defining characteristic of a pie is that it's meant to be enjoyed by a group. While certain desserts are designed for the solo diner — cookies, scoops of ice cream, even the single-slice serving of pie at the end of the night at a restaurant — a whole pie is aggressive in its demand to be portioned into slivers.
One day I'll go home for Thanksgiving, and doing so, I know I'll submit myself to the same barrage of questions and critiques that I always am. I'll steal second helpings of candied yams, I'll make small talk in hallways and step over dogs in food comas and toddlers gumming mashed potatoes.
And when it comes time for the pie, I'll get in line — into the crush of friends and relatives, tipsy and tired, laughing and teasing — and I'll idly hope that when it comes my turn, there will still be a slice of pumpkin left.