The unexpected link between pies and coffins — plus more Thanksgiving dessert trivia from food historians

Rachel Grumman Bender
·6 min read
The truth -- and myths -- behind the history of Thanksgiving pies (Photo: Getty)
The truth -- and myths -- behind the history of Thanksgiving pies (Photo: Getty)

While the turkey typically takes center stage at Thanksgiving, who isn’t equally — if not more — excited to dig into those delicious pies at the end of the holiday meal? No matter how full you get, there’s always room for pie.

But have you ever wondered why pies like pumpkin and pecan are often served at Thanksgiving dinner? Yahoo Life reached out to food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson and Rick Rodgers, culinary expert and author of Thanksgiving 101, who shared some surprising facts about the most popular pies served at Thanksgiving — and how they ended up playing a big role in this festive feast.

Pumpkin pie

Pumpkin pie wasn't actually served by pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving (Photo: Getty)
Pumpkin pie wasn't actually served by pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving (Photo: Getty)

It’s hard to imagine Thanksgiving dinner without pumpkin pie. But Rodgers tells Yahoo Life: “There was no pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving, as the pilgrims were not cultivating wheat.”

That said, the pilgrims “would have learned about pumpkins from the [Native Americans],” says Rodgers.

The British pie tradition eventually “carried over to the British colonies in New England, where pumpkins, developed by Indigenous people, were easy to grow, plentiful, and stored well over the winter,” Johnson tells Yahoo Life. Some pumpkins were, “roasted whole with milk and a little nutmeg and sugar for seasoning,” she says. “Stewed pumpkin in pastry crust wasn't too far behind.”

When canned pumpkin became available in the late 1800s, pumpkin pie, “known as a specialty of New England cooking,” says Rodgers, “became common throughout the country.”

But pies in general are an old dish. “Cooked foods encased in standing pastry date back to Medieval England,” says Johnson, who shares that early versions of pie crust were called “coffins” or “coffyns” — meaning a basket or box, not an actual coffin for a body — “and weren't designed to be eaten, but rather as a freestanding enclosure for largely meats,” she explains. “Later, more edible pie crusts became more common.”

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And if you’ve ever wondered why some people put marshmallows on their pumpkin pie (and other dishes) at Thanksgiving, Johnson explains that seems to be “the result of a request by a marshmallow manufacturer for recipes,” and goes back to the early 1900s. Johnson says there’s a reference of pumpkin pie topped with marshmallows in Good Housekeeping that dates back to 1912.

Apple pie

(Photo: Getty)
(Photo: Getty)

While apple pie is considered to be as American as hot dogs (which aren’t originally American either) and baseball, the popular pie actually originated in England in the 1300s — and it wasn’t served at the first Thanksgiving either.

“Apples are not native to North America, except for one variety of wild crab apple,” says Johnson. That started to change in 1607 when early settlers arriving at Jamestown, Virginia, “brought with them [apple] seeds and cuttings from Europe,” according to History.com.

But, according to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, “many of the grafted fruit trees brought from Europe proved unsuited to the climate of the New World” and either died or struggled to thrive. Eventually, some heartier trees survived and grew, but they were typically used to make cider — not for eating. (Better grafting — “a form of cloning used to propagate a desirable variety,” according to Cornell University — helped make apples more edible.)

Adds Rodgers: “Apple pie was a common dish in England. The colonists would have made it as soon as they had wheat and some method of sweetening it” — and tastier apples.

Apple pie didn’t start to become popular in the U.S., though, until the late 1700s. It appeared in a recipe in America’s first cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, in 1796.

Pecan pie

A corn syrup manufacturer popularized pecan pie. (Photo: Getty)
A corn syrup manufacturer popularized pecan pie. (Photo: Getty)

It may be the “South’s signature dessert,” according to Southern Living, but people all over the U.S. enjoy servings of gooey pecan pie on Thanksgiving.

According to the publication, “Recipes for milk-custard-based pecan pies can be found as early as 1824 in Mary Randolph's [cookbook], The Virginia Housewife.” But Rodgers explains that pecans, which are native to North America and come from the Algonquin tribe’s word for “nut,” “were not a big crop until after the Civil War and they were planted in Georgia and other Southern states.” He adds: “There were many pies that used eggs and a sweetener, such as treacle, chess, maple syrup and sorghum [pies], so adding pecans was a natural progression.”

But it was actually a corn syrup manufacturer that truly popularized pecan pie, according to Rodgers. “There were no traditional recipes for corn syrup,” he says. So the corn syrup manufacturer’s staff “invented a pecan pie” using corn syrup in a recipe “that was printed on every can,” notes Rodgers.

Between the plethora of pecans and the fact that, with corn syrup, “sweetness could be purchased in a convenient can,” says Rodgers, pecan pie was simple to whip up. “If you have ever peeled a bucket of apples for pies, you will appreciate how easy pecan pie is to make — as long as you have shelled nuts,” he says.

Cheesecake

Cheesecake originated in ancient Greece.  (Photo: Getty)
Cheesecake originated in ancient Greece. (Photo: Getty)

This creamy dessert wasn’t part of the original Thanksgiving meal — but a creative November 2019 ad campaign by Philadelphia cream cheese claimed that cheesecake was actually served at that first Thanksgiving feast — and had some people fooled.

“The pilgrims didn’t bring cattle with them on the Mayflower,” says Rodgers, “so there was no milk or cheese” to make cheesecake. Although custards and clotted cream are popular in England, Johnson notes that the country “does not have a real cheesecake tradition.” So along with not having all of the ingredients, the dessert wouldn’t be “something so prevalent with fresh-off-the-boat British colonists in New England.”

Cheesecake, on the other hand, is actually an ancient dish. According to Cheesecake.com: “The writer Athenaeus is credited for writing the first Greek cheesecake recipe in 230 A.D.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century, though, that the dessert began to resemble the cheesecake we now know in the U.S. In 1929, restaurant owner Arnold Reuben (of the famous sandwich) was said to have developed the first New York-style cheesecake recipe.

To this day, cheesecake is a popular dessert that’s eaten year-round — and some people even serve classic or Thanksgiving-inspired versions of cheesecake on the holiday.