When my husband and I renovated the kitchen of our 1952 home in Durham's Northgate Park neighborhood, we unearthed treasures along with the aging layers of linoleum and paint.
One was a filthy black box, pulled from behind an old appliance, that held rows and rows of 14-karat white gold rings, presumably stashed by a member of the home's original family, the Gosses. They owned a jewelry store in Durham. The rings held no gems in their settings but proved valuable when we needed extra cash to finish some home projects.
The second was a yellowed, weathered recipe card that had fallen behind the pine cabinets we tore from the plaster walls. Written in perfect elementary-school-teacher penmanship, it offered directions for "Eisenhower's Pumpkin Pie." The card must have slipped behind the cabinets decades earlier, a permanent loss to the lady of the house in those pre-Internet days.
The first line read: "Make pie crust & bake." The rest detailed maneuvers I had never seen in a pumpkin pie recipe: double boiler, gelatin, separating egg yolks, whipping the whites, and 11/2 cups pumpkin—fresh, I assumed.
I have since learned that canned pumpkin has been readily available since at least 1950, when Libby's began peddling its "famous pumpkin pie recipe" on the side of that orange label. But I couldn't help but think fresh pumpkin was intended for this recipe, attributed to First Lady Mamie, who lived with husband Ike in the White House from 1953–1961.
In my hands I held an archeological foodie find, an artifact that tied me to the former lady of my house, a woman I'll never meet but whose spirit lingers in my kitchen. The thought of following in her culinary footsteps intrigued me. Mamie's pie beckoned me to bake it from across the generations. I wondered, too, if our current embrace of fresh, seasonal and unprocessed food, which has informed my coming of age as a cook, fueled my assumption that the baker of this pie used fresh pumpkin. When it comes to this Thanksgiving staple, is fresh really better than canned?
I started by buying some pumpkins, courtesy of Brinkley Farm, from the Durham Farmers' Market—three pie pumpkins, small and bright orange. I cut them in half, salvaged the seeds for what would be some incredibly buttery roasted treats and sprayed them down with a bit of cooking spray. Then I roasted the three pumpkins (for one pie, one would have been plenty) on a baking sheet at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
"This must have been a real pain in the ass to make before the invention of the Cuisinart," said my husband, amused as I stood at the counter peeling the slippery squash, then pureeing them in my food processor.
After all this prep work, which totaled about two hours, I was ready to get baking. Except, I confess to buying a frozen crust. The real cooking took place on the stovetop. I used a double boiler to slowly cook the eggs, milk, gelatin and pumpkin into a frustratingly loose custard.
I'm not a big fan of gelatin, not since I had to shellac my hair with it during my days as a synchronized swimmer. I was 5 years old and never had a taste for Jell-O again. As a result I was a bit anxious, not knowing how the stuff worked, what it should look like and how long it would take before I knew for sure I had used it correctly.
There were some distinct differences between the filling made with fresh pumpkin and that made with canned. First was color. The fresh pumpkin was not nearly as dark or rich looking an orange. It was more yellow, the color of an unfortunate pair of disco-era pants.
And it was wet. I actually let the fresh puree strain a while in a mesh sieve before using it, and a considerable amount of pumpkin juice dripped out. Still, the fresh filling never became a solid atop the double boiler, even though I stirred it an extra 10 minutes out of paranoia.
But they both set up nicely in the refrigerator —there would be no true baking with this pie—though the fresh filling oozed over the perimeter of the crust before turning into what was more a pumpkin mousse than the pie filling I was used to. It was light, like whipped butter compared to stick butter, but unlike butter, the taste was not remotely compromised.
I did a taste test between the canned and fresh pies, and I tried to not think about the work that went into deseeding, roasting, peeling and pureeing those pumpkins compared to the effort the can opener required. And the color was admittedly less appetizing. Once the spices and brown sugar were added, the yellowish orange pumpkin became dirtier, a dingy version of its canned counterpart.
But I couldn't help but think the fresh pumpkin pie was a bit more delicate in flavor, more balanced and nuanced—in a word, fresher. I can't say that Mamie's recipe is now my go-to for pumpkin pie. If I had to eat one pumpkin pie the rest of my life, I think I'd prefer one without gelatin, one that is baked and whose filling has more bite to it. I also tested a delicious gingered pie recipe by Bill Neal, and I have never turned my nose up to good old Libby's.
I will say that delving into this recipe, one that would have remained untouched had we not ripped out some cabinets, was a true culinary adventure. I know the original lady of the house stood for far longer in the small, U-shaped work space of my kitchen than I ever will. The Goss family lived in this house some 40 years, raising a son as we are now. But I felt my kinship with her strengthen as I followed the recipe penned in her hand.
In addition to the recipe card, two other equally yellowed and worn papers were found behind the cabinets. One was a to-do list, the other a child's drawing of a house. The list included items like "clothes pins," "rags for cleaning up" and "bed spreads." It's as if she was getting ready for company; perhaps a holiday was looming in which pies would be made.
Make pie crust and bake.1 envelope unflavored gelatin
Mix the gelatin, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg in the top of a double boiler. Add pumpkin, milk and egg yolks. Heat over boiling water until thick, roughly 15 minutes, or until thickening stops after a while. Cool mixture until cold enough to drop by spoonfuls into a mound.
In a separate bowl, use an electric mixer to beat egg whites with granulated sugar until firm peaks form. Fold into pumpkin mixture. Pour into cooled pie shell and chill until set, at least 3 hours.
Top with whipped cream if desired.
Around here, you can buy pie pumpkins at major grocery chains like Kroger, smaller venues like Trader Joe's and at farmers markets. But it seems that the larger the store, the farther the pumpkin has traveled, which strains the environment and can compromise flavor.
In my efforts to compare canned versus fresh pumpkin pie, I tested a few other recipes, including the traditional Libby's recipe, as well as a gingered pumpkin pie from Bill Neal's Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie.
In general, pies made with canned pumpkin received higher scores from testers in a blind tasting. Just out of curiosity, I also made a pie with premade filling from Libby's, which was still rated rather favorably. Neal's pie, made with canned pumpkin, was a consistent winner. The pieces of candied ginger scattered throughout the filling may have given it the edge over the others.
Elizabeth Shestak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.