For most of us, pumpkin pie is as much an integral part of Thanksgiving as turkey and stuffing. It's been that way since the beginning, when pilgrims included pumpkin-based delights in their harvest meal.
But early versions of the dessert were much harder to come by than our canned-puree (or Marie Callender's) variety. The original New Englanders used pumpkins from the American Indians' harvest, of which they received a large share after arriving in Plymouth, Mass., in 1620. They filled pumpkin shells with a mixture of pumpkin, milk, honey, and spices, and baked them in hot ashes to get that puddinglike, orange deliciousness that so many of us crave by mid-November.
Back then, every part of the pumpkin was used. Pumpkin seeds were medicine. Mats were made from flattened, dried strips of shell. It even came in handy if you didn't like your freckles or wanted to get rid of a nasty snakebite, or so the pilgrims believed. The early Americans were so infatuated with the fruit (then known as pompion) that they even wrote songs about it: "We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon / If it were not for pumpkins, we would be undone."
These days, it's hard to find anyone who uses a pumpkin for anything more than a table decoration or a Jack-o'-lantern. But it's just as hard to find someone who'd say that the orange-colored custard tart doesn't belong on the Thanksgiving table. So why argue with tradition? At the very least, you'll be serving up some good, old-fashioned nutrition to your guests, in the form of vitamin A, potassium, and fiber.
Here are some ideas for pumpkin treats, whether they're traditional pies or modern alternatives, store bought or homemade.
From the outside, this Mission Street den doesn't look like a place where you'd want to buy a pet mouse, let alone a dessert to feed your loved ones. But stepping inside the café is like opening the door to Oz: bright colors and friendliness offset the tattered exterior. The staff suggests preordering from the rotating menu of five popular holiday pies ($18) if you want a whole one in time for Turkey Day. And believe me, you will. Try a slice ($3.85, or $3.50 to go) with a dollop of chilled whipped cream and a cup of one of three house-blend coffees. You'll find the pie's as traditional as anything Grandma's ever made for you.
2901 Mission, SF. (415) 282-1500, www.missionpie.com
MIETTE PATISSERIE AND CONFISERIE
It's nutty. It's succulent. And according to my findings, one person can devour the whole thing in a day. Beautifully wrapped in plastic and a pink bow, Miette's pumpkin walnut cake ($14) is a staple dessert for anyone headed to Mom and Dad's for Thanksgiving but only if you can make it there with some still left on the platter. Not dressed to impress? Oh please, this cake is class-y. It will make up for a tattered sweater or a stained pant leg.
Ferry Building Marketplace, Embarcadero and Market, SF. (415) 837-0300, www.miettecakes.com
This avant-garde brand makes completely organic pies from rice milk, free-range eggs, and palm fruit oil which all taste better than they sound. Plus, everything is wheat free, gluten free, and casein free, so dessert lovers who are allergic to wheat and dairy can pig out without losing sleep. Pick up an eight-inch pumpkin tart at Whole Foods, Rincon Market, RJ's Market, Rainbow Grocery, Mollie Stones, Le Beau Nob Hill Market, or Andronico's.
(415) 826-7187, www.cravebakery.org
It's always fun to mix things up. It's even more fun when there's pumpkin cheesecake involved.