Rick Bailey is a retired English instructor who taught writing for thirty-eight years at Henry Ford College in Michigan. He is the author or editor of several books, including The Enjoy Agenda: At Home and Abroad (Nebraska, 2019) and American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance (Nebraska, 2017). Below is an excerpt from the title essay in his new book Get Thee to a Bakery: Essays (March, 2021).
“Get Thee to a Bakery”
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” my wife says.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning, early September. I’m climbing a ladder leaned up against the house. It’s that time of year. The air has begun to change; it’s both crisp and faintly rotten-smelling. Where we live we are rich in cottonwoods, proving that riches can also be a curse. Trees with big leaves, cottonwoods start unleaving early in the fall. Our cottonwoods are mature, tall beasts. The eaves and gutters on the house are already full. Up on the ladder, I’m on clog patrol.
“Really,” she says.
I tell her I’m being careful.
Some year ago, Lowell, one of her pals from work, fell off a ladder and broke his back. Then Bill the neighbor down the street fell off a ladder and hurt his shoulder. My brother said once, right in front of my wife, he thought a person ought to be required to have a license to climb a ladder, much like they need a license to drive a car or carry a gun. Ladders, he said, are that dangerous. He was kidding, but only just a little. Around that time our father, standing a rung higher than he thought he was, stepped prematurely off a ladder into low mid-air and collided with the cement floor in the garage. For weeks he was black and blue and walked with a limp.
My wife points at my feet. “In flip flops, no less.” She shakes her head and stalks back in the house.
“When I’m done here,” I call after her, “I’m going to reward myself with a piece of pumpkin pie.”
One of America’s greatest gifts to itself, pumpkin pie can be traced to the Plymouth Plantation, where the original locals turned the pilgrims on to pumpkins. What’s Cooking in America traces pumpkin pie lineage to Plymouth, describing a primitive confection of stewed pumpkin and a hollowed out pumpkin shell filled with honey, milk, and spices, cooked in ashes.
Food historians point to how quickly pumpkins and pumpkin cooking proliferated back in Europe. As early as 1651 recipes for pumpkin pie were already being published. I give you Francois Pierre la Varenne, for example, and his Le Vrai Cuisinier Francois, with a recipe for Tourte of pumpkin. “Boile it with good milk, pass it through a straining pan very thick, and mix it with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds; let all be very thin. Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it. After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve.” I would eat that.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s podcast, Past & Present, reports that the first American cookbook was published in 1796 and includes two recipes for a pumpkin pudding, one remarkably similar to the pie recipe used today: the pumpkin was “cooked with cream, eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg, and ginger, and baked . . . three quarters of an hour in a crust.” This recipe, the podcast notes, anticipates the one on the label of the Libby pumpkin can.
Early in our marriage, my wife the purist stated her intentions: she would make pumpkin pie from an actual pumpkin. While I know I should have been seduced by her desire to do so, I was not. I am a can man. My mother got her pumpkin from a can. For me, until recently, her pie was the gold standard.
“I know about pumpkin,” my wife said. “In Italy we have pumpkin ravioli. Pumpkin is not just an American thing.”
What can I say? I stand by the can.