Pumpkin pie will grace most Thanksgiving tables this week, including mine. Yet at the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, the pumpkin would likely have been stewed, not baked. The book Giving Thanks by food historians Kathleen Curtin and Sandra L. Oliver (Plimoth Plantation, 2005), gives a detailed account of what is known about the original menu and what is simply speculation. Known: fowl, deer, and pumpkin, also called “pompion.” Possible indigenous accompaniments: cranberries, Concord grapes (the wild variety), walnuts and chestnuts. From English gardens: cabbages, carrots, colewarts (collards), endive, fennel, chard, leeks, onions, parsnips, radish, spinach, turnips, or various herbs. The English settlers also likely brought pepper, sugar, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and mustard to flavor their food.
An early “pompion” recipe comes from 1672. Called an “ancient New England standing dish,” it comes from John Josselyn’s New England Rarities Discovered. The “Housewife’s manner” of making this dish is to put diced pumpkin flesh in a pot, and stew it “on a gentle fire the whole day.” Butter, vinegar, and spice “as ginger, & c.” go in at the end. There is also a warning that this dish provokes “urine extreamly”!
Willing to take the risk, especially with modern, indoor plumbing nearby, I adapted this recipe. Since I never have good luck cooking fresh pumpkins, I chose butternut squash instead. My vinegar selection of balsamic, rice, or Chinese black Chinkaing would never have been available in the 17th century but I decided to use the balsamic. The final dish, tender chunks of squash with the surprise tartness of vinegar, will certainly be less popular than pie but nonetheless add an authentic touch to the upcoming feast. I am also happy to report that the “extream” warning did not prove true!
Stewed Pumpkin (1672)
Makes 2 cups
2 cups pumpkin or butternut squash, cut into 1-inch pieces
Salt, to taste
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon ginger
- Place the pumpkin or squash cubes in a large pot. Add just enough water to cover the squash and a pinch of salt
- Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the pieces are soft but still holding their shape, about 35 minutes.
- Drain and add the butter, vinegar, ginger, and additional salt to taste. Toss to combine and serve warm.