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Joe's Neighborhood

‘As American as pumpkin pie’

12/9/2015

“As American as pumpkin pie.” An interesting thing to say about our relationship to a squash. Certainly, the ingredients are a melting pot of pumpkin, ginger, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, milk, cloves, eggs and, of course, a piecrust made with lard. But “as American as pumpkin pie”? That’s a lot of pressure to put on a wannabe vegetable that is stuck being a fruit.

Sure, most pumpkins you meet are low to the ground, rotund and not very dynamic personally. But they are certainly jolly. The very image of a pumpkin can make you smile. Pumpkins are like cute animal videos, but instead of a dog opening a door or a cat flushing a toilet, the pumpkin wows you with its preposterousness.

Yup, preposterousness. Pumpkins are constantly performing slapstick without any physical movement. They exist at the edges of reality. Look at them. They look like aliens. The fun-uncle kind.joes 2 12.10

And that isn’t the end of their story. Big or little, round or misshapen, bright orange or pale yellow, pumpkins have a certain gravitas. They have grown into their environment and have adapted and changed to conform to the very ground under their feet. A stone is in the way? No matter. They grow around it. Quite a trick when you’re really not that far up the food chain.

Ah, but this doesn’t answer the question — how American is pumpkin pie?

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Kate Colquhoun, author of “Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking,” said in an article in The New York Times several years ago:

“While the English hung on to their pudding with steadily decreasing enthusiasm for centuries, they let go another great Elizabethan favorite that might have had more staying power: pumpkin pie. First introduced to Tudor England by the French, the flesh of the ‘pompion’ was quickly accepted as a pie filler. However, while pumpkin pie sailed with the Pilgrims back to the birthplace of its main ingredient — where it survived in more or less its original form — it all but disappeared in its country of origin.”

Pumpkins are homegrown, folks. And a pumpkin pie recipe was brought over by the Pilgrims themselves. Perhaps this is why we love pumpkin pie. And, make no mistake, we do love pumpkin pie.

“I come from a bakery family. My dad owned a bakery in Marshalltown. I started working with him when I was 15. I have worked in the bakery business for 37 years. And I’m 52 years old. That’s a long time.”

joes 1 12.10Dave Kelderman, the bakery manager at the Hy-Vee on Douglas Avenue in Urbandale, gives me a tired smile. A post-Thanksgiving smile.

“We sell a lot of pumpkin pie here. We sold hundreds of pumpkin pies Thanksgiving week.”

My goodness. Baking must be your life.

“I’ve been managing bakeries since I was 22. You know what? I swore I’d never do this for a living. I was going to be a rock star, but the hair went and so did being a rock star.”

We both pause to contemplate our bald heads and lost dreams due to hair loss.

Is there a secret to pumpkin pie?

“I make pumpkin pies from scratch. We use the same recipe I’ve been using for 30 years now. I couldn’t tell you exactly where it came from, but it’s the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever had. Better than Mom’s.”

Kelderman leans into me, smiling.

“I never told Mom that while she was alive. Now that she’s gone, I can say it out loud.”

Kelderman then gives me a large, meaty handshake, a broad, friendly smile, and back to work he goes. Goodness, there IS a friendly smile in every aisle.

OK, clearly pumpkin pie is all-American — it is loved, and it is lovable. So, it is fair to use the phrase that something is “as American as pumpkin pie.” Great.

The only obvious question remaining — can pumpkin pie consumption reveal who is a true American? Of course, in this time of presidential caucuses, this is an important concern. No candidate has addressed this pumpkin pie issue. Sure, many have said who is welcome in this country and who is not. Even our own governor has banned a whole group of people from entering our state based on their place of origin. But these are just irrational shots in the dark. Is pumpkin pie consumption the litmus test we’ve been waiting for?

Who knows?

Although, I haven’t even mentioned the divisive issue of whipped cream, which, when put on your pie, is as American as pumpkin pie. Obviously. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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