Thanksgiving Traditions & Memories: My Grandmother’s Pies

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to find recipes and learn more about one of our favorite parts of Thanksgiving: pies!

One of my earliest Thanksgiving memories is of my grandmother and great-grandmother waking up before everyone and starting the meal preparations at 4 a.m. On that annual feast day, multiple tables would be heavy with all kinds of food, including pies – all kinds of pies. I must admit that back then the only pie I cared about was pumpkin, but there were other choices on that table as well, including mincemeat, apple, and cherry.

photo of a pumpkin pie
Photo: pumpkin pie. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture; Wikimedia Commons.

Who doesn’t like pie? Pie is something our ancestors ate and in fact has been around since the ancient Egyptians. This time of the year focuses on pie as a dessert, but originally most pies were made of meat, appearing in England around the 12th century. Fruit pies came around later in the 1500s. Pie was even a food eaten by the earliest English settlers to America.*

So what pies are your family favorites? Are you a pie baker? Looking to try something new this Thanksgiving? Here are a few pie recipes from yesteryear, as found in the pages of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Prize-Winning Pie Recipes

You can’t go wrong with an award-winning pie recipe, and old newspapers are full of examples from competitions hosted by newspaper food columns, food companies, and other groups. For those who are fans of cherry pie, this recipe from Karan Ann Gunning of Mulberry, Indiana, won the 27th National Cherry Pie Baking Contest in 1959.

photo of a slice of cherry pie
Photo: slice of cherry pie. Credit: Evan-Amos; Wikimedia Commons.

Aside from frozen cherries, the filling consists of sugar, tapioca, red food coloring, almond extract, lemon juice and butter. The pie crust is completed with a cherry decoration.

article about a prize-winning recipe for cherry pie
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 26 February 1959, section 5, page 16

Newspaper food columns did more than provide recipes and tips; they also held contests (see Newspaper Recipe Contests: Was Your Ancestor a Contest Winner?).

The winner of this 1934 Trenton Evening Times (New Jersey) contest is a rhubarb pie topped off with a meringue.

photo of a rhubarb pie
Photo: rhubarb pie. Credit: Hayford Peirce; Wikimedia Commons.

Miss Grace Martin from Trenton won the top prize of $5 for her recipe, while the other recipe winners brought home $1.

article about a prize-winning rhubarb pie recipe, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 5 July 1934
Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 5 July 1934, page 13

Thanksgiving Means Pumpkin Pie

At Thanksgiving time, the best pie is obviously pumpkin pie.

photo of a slice of pumpkin pie
Photo: slice of pumpkin pie. Credit: Evan-Amos; Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s face it, what’s not to like about this traditional holiday favorite? And speaking of traditional – this 1910 newspaper article gives the pumpkin pie recipe “the Pilgrim mothers used to make.”

article about a pumpkin pie recipe, Grand Forks Daily Herald newspaper article 30 November 1910
Grand Forks Daily Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 30 November 1910, section 2, page 9

This 1953 newspaper article provides a pumpkin pie recipe that uses canned pumpkin to make two versions of the pie. One version, referred to as a “refrigerator pie,” involves a double boiler and gelatin.

article about pumpkin pie recipes, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 1 November 1953
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 1 November 1953, section vi, page 6

Now, if you’re tired of the same old pumpkin pie, consider a variation – like one of my favorites: the Pumpkin Chiffon Pie. This interesting recipe for the chiffon pie includes a crust of saltine crackers.

photo of a pumpkin chiffon pie, Boston Herald newspaper article 16 November 1972
Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 November 1972, page 26
article about a pumpkin chiffon pie recipe, Boston Herald newspaper article 16 November 1972
Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 November 1972, page 26

I’m Not Eating That

Ok let’s face it. Everyone has a favorite pie which means there is probably a pie you dislike. So here are a few recipes that would probably cause me to skip dessert this year if they were served.

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I don’t come from a big cranberry-eating family, so I was a little surprised to see this Cranberry Pie recipe from 1942.

photo of a cranberry-pecan pie
Photo: cranberry-pecan pie. Credit: BenFrantzDale; Wikimedia Commons.

But in light of food rationing during World War II it makes sense why this pie would have been suggested. The article advises:

In view of sugar rationing, it might be well this year to double up on the cranberries and dessert by serving the cranberries in a pie.

The other recipe adds orange juice to pumpkin pie, which is not the pumpkin pie I’m used to.

article about a pumpkin pie recipe, Advocate newspaper article 4 December 1942
Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 4 December 1942, page 18

Mincemeat Pie

Another pie that I often hear associated with the holidays is mincemeat.

photo of a mincemeat pie
Photo: mincemeat pie. Credit: Alcinoe; Wikimedia Commons.

According to the History Channel website, mincemeat originated in the 13th century when the Crusaders brought back exotic spices and ingredients from the Holy Land. Those spices were combined with “fruit and meat to make their supply of protein last longer.” The spices became associated with Christmas and the gifts presented to the Christ child by the Three Wise Men.** Now, my guess is that mincemeat pie is not as popular today as it once was. A few generations back, it was regularly served in my family. One side made this pie with meat and the other with only fruit. If you’re confused about what mincemeat pie really is, this 1995 nutrition column provides some direction.

article about mincemeat pie, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 19 December 1995
Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 19 December 1995, page 10

If your holiday tradition includes mincemeat pie, these 1911 examples include some recipes with meat as an ingredient and others with strictly fruit.

article about mincemeat pie recipes, Oregonian newspaper article 19 November 1911
Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 19 November 1911, section 5, page 6

And because Thanksgiving is so busy with all the prep work and cooking, I think this recipe for mincemeat pie is probably the best one of them all because of its simplicity.

article about a mincemeat pie recipe, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 19 November 1959
Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 19 November 1959, page 18

What pie are you preparing this Thanksgiving? Is it from a recipe that’s been in the family a long time? Share your pie memories – and recipes – with us in the comments section.

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* History of Pies. American Pie Council. http://www.piecouncil.org/Events/NationalPieDay/HistoryOfPies
** Mincemeat: It’s What’s for (Christmas) Dinner, History. http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/mincemeat-its-whats-for-christmas-dinner

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