For Thanksgiving, is pumpkin pie or apple pie the best dessert?

A writer who loves pumpkin pie and a writer who loves apple pie make their cases.

For Thanksgiving, is pumpkin pie or apple pie the best dessert?

A writer who loves pumpkin pie and a writer who loves apple pie make their cases.

Nov. 25, 2020

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I can't envision Thanksgiving without a pumpkin pie. That tradition will be even more soothing this year.

It's the most American pie, the healthiest pie and the most autumnal pie. What's not to love?

By Monica Potts

Pumpkin has had a tumultuous decade, but that has nothing to do with the modest gourd itself. The fault lies with Starbucks, which debuted its Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003. The drink didn't even have any actual pumpkin in it until five years ago; it was given the name based on its mixture of cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves and (sometimes) nutmeg that many Americans associate with pumpkin pie. 

But the word "pumpkin" itself came to represent fall, and Starbucks started to roll it out earlier and earlier in the year, often while it was still too warm outside to even think about drinking hot coffee. Tied to Americans' ambivalence about consumerism and corporations, and with perhaps a little sexism thrown in (the lattes were largely enjoyed by women), the backlash was swift and complete.  

But the Pumpkin Spice Latte persisted, and its ethos has metastasized. It is still a hugely successful part of the coffee chain's menu, and we now have everything from pumpkin spice-flavored Oreos to pumpkin spice-scented cleaning solutions. Even the haters have had to make their peace with all of it: In this year, of all years, let people enjoy their pumpkin spice.

Lost in all of this (and suffering from the backlash a bit) has been the food item the latte was trying to evoke: the most classic of all fall pies, a stalwart of the Thanksgiving dessert table, the pumpkin pie. While pumpkin lovers have always had to listen to apple pies make a claim on all-Americanness, the pumpkin is native to this continent, cultivated by Native Americans long before Europeans came. (Apples are native to central Asia and were brought here by European colonists.)

Once the Europeans got a taste of pumpkin, though, they took it back with them to the old country and started using it for tarts and pies. Pumpkin pie — in the form of a pumpkin pudding baked in a crust — made it into the first known American cookbook, "American Cookery, by an American Orphan" by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796.

Pumpkin is also the best squash — and the only one I find actually delicious. All the rest are too watery and have a kind of unpleasant aftertaste or filmy mouthfeel at times. Yellow summer squash, to me, has hardly any flavor; it's one of the few foods I dislike, which makes me a bad Southerner. But pumpkin has an earthy heartiness that makes anything it's in — pies, breads, muffins, chilis — creamy. Its subtle but definite flavor can carry all of the spice mix that borrowed its name, and the gourd lends itself to sweetness. 

The contrast between a creamy pumpkin filling and a perfect flaky crust nears pie perfection. Also, pumpkin pie is good for you, packed with beta carotene and other nutrients; tell yourself you're eating your vegetables as dessert, and it will be only half a lie.

There are other delicious pies, of course, but I can't envision Thanksgiving without a pumpkin one. I know, for instance, that many cooks choose sweet potato pie as an alternative, but for me, a sweet potato pie has too much potato flavor and is overwhelmingly textured. Sweet potatoes are too hearty and too sweet at once, which makes them better as a dinner side dish than a dessert, on my plate anyway.

As an avid home cook, I've seen many recipes that try to improve on the basicness of pumpkin pie, like adding a cheesecake layer or a streusel top. But sometimes, a basic occasion calls for more basic flavors. The reason Pumpkin Spice Lattes have prevailed is that the spice combination so perfectly captures the feeling and emotions of fall. 

Pumpkins, after all, are the centerpieces of the year's two best holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving, which are both in the year's best season, autumn. Halloween was my favorite holiday when I was a child, and, as much as I recognize its complicated and problematic history, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday now that I'm an adult. It's an ode to the central, fundamentally human pleasure of being grateful for nourishment, physical and emotional. For me, the only fitting way to celebrate that is with foods that have long histories for you and the family with whom you've decided to share a table, simply and ably prepared. 

What counts as a traditional Thanksgiving meal means a lot of things to a lot of different Americans. For me, it means a turkey properly cooked (it's not dry if you cook it right!), a bowl of crunchy green vegetables, like Brussels sprouts (which have been a favorite since I was a kid), cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, white gravy and yeast rolls that hopefully someone who isn't me has made. Many recent years, we've mourned the culinary contributions that no longer make it to our Thanksgiving table — my uncle's potato salad, my grandma's dressing, my dad's gravy, my Mammaw's banana pudding (which my mom had to sneak in to her dad to eat because he thought it was better than his wife's) — but that is part of the celebration, too. 

After that overly rich, elaborate meal, it's the basicness of a pumpkin pie that I need. There's also something about the color — that lovely, muted burnt orange — that turns Thanksgiving dinner into a meal like no other, as inescapably part of the season as the last leaves to fall, that last burst of color before the winter (when all we will want to eat are carbs). The color is both a mark of time passing and a celebration of simple satisfaction, with no frills or surprises. 

The tradition of a pumpkin pie after a Thanksgiving meal will be even more soothing to me this year, when nothing has been simple or satisfying. Like many of us, I won't be able to celebrate with family or friends, and I will be taking time to remember the people I know whose holidays will be marked by loss. It's a good year to reach back into my history — our history — and find pleasure in something old and steady and sure.

Monica Potts is a writer based in Arkansas. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic and other publications. She is writing a book about her rural hometown.

A Thanksgiving dinner needs a transcendent apple pie at its end. Nothing is more magical.

Flexible but familiar and all-American without being staid, apple pie is the only way to end a holiday meal.

By Mikki Kendall

Do not tell my grandmother or my mother-in-law, but my husband makes the best apple pie in the world. He uses Granny Smith apples, plenty of butter, sugar and cinnamon, and magic occurs in a pie plate. It is so good that it’s sometimes the family’s choice for birthdays instead of cake. 

And here’s another secret about my husband that he sort of thinks is a joke — and it is, but it isn’t. Technically, he won me over with an apple pie. 

Blame a bad divorce, or the age gap, or my life being filled with bigger issues, but finding a new relationship wasn't a priority when we first started casually seeing one another. We hung out often, we had great conversations, he was nice to my son when they interacted in passing, but I wasn’t totally sold. I liked him, but I was not sure I could love him. Then he made me an apple pie — from scratch. It wasn’t for any reason or occasion in particular; I had said something about wanting one that wasn’t from a box, but that I didn’t have time to peel apples and assemble a pie given my job, my school and a very active toddler. 

He told me he could make me one; I don’t think I believed him. Knowing our relationship at the time, I probably said something like, “Yeah, right,” and moved the conversation along. Then he came over and made me a pie, in my kitchen, with supplies he brought over in a little brown bag. (He also made me dinner.) It was magical because I wasn’t used to people taking care of me, and because the 21-year-old dude with whom I wasn’t in love suddenly became the 21-year-old man who saw me as someone who deserved care and concern all the time. 

The dinner was good — it was certainly worth the mess he made (and cleaned up) — but it was that first bite of the pie that made me swoon. 

I will deny this later — don’t tell him if you meet him, as it’ll inflate his ego too much — but that combination of hot pie and cold ice cream is what I associate most with falling in love with him. 

By contrast, most of you probably associate apple pie with your grandmother; it’s a symbol of tradition or something like that. But what you don’t understand is that apple pie is sexy, too. It is exciting and flexible while still delivering that deep-down emotional boost of being enveloped in a warm safe space. It  never lets you down; comforting and dependable aren’t the antithesis of fun when something sparks joy every time. 

I will skip the clichés about the synonymousness of America and apple pie — and the myths about Johnny Appleseed — and instead present the irrefutable fact that no pie is as good after a heavy holiday meal as apple pie (unless we’re talking sweet potato pie, which is in a class of its own). Tangy sweet fruit cooked in butter and spices is both transcendent and eminently flexible, as it can be topped with everything from crust to crumb to caramel to cheese and still be delicious. 

And it has the bonus of being nominally good for you. Want to feel healthier? Have an apple. Want to feel healthy and satisfy your sweet tooth? Have apple pie. 

Unlike the subpar pumpkin pie, an apple pie does not require mimicking the seasoning of sweet potato pie in order to taste good — and its filling cannot be replaced with squash or other root vegetables and taste nearly the same. Apple pie has texture, it has history (personal and otherwise), and it has nuanced layers of flavors that can be altered by your choice of apple, as well as the way you choose to top it. 

From a purely selfish vantage point, when the holidays roll around and someone offers to bring dessert, you know that if they bring an apple pie, it will not clash with your menu, it’s unlikely to contain any major allergens and warming it up will make your house smell lovely. (All of that is true unless it has been tainted with that foul creature known as the raisin, but I feel like most people know better than to do that to an innocent pie that just wants to make you feel loved and well-fed. )

This year has been rough, and these holidays are likely to be fraught because of politics and the pandemic. Unify at the table over a slice of apple pie and perhaps a scoop of ice cream. Or use the hot fruit as a weapon; that’s up to you.

Mikki Kendall is the Chicago-based author of "Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists" and "Hood Feminism."

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