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Retro Baltimore: The Sun’s views on pumpkin pie shifted dramatically before and after the Civil War

Ah yes, the eternal question of the Thanksgiving season.

Is pumpkin pie a “vile pretender” of a dessert, whose flavor profile hinges upon the spices strewed about the innards of a dissected gourd? Or is it a mouthwatering delicacy that couldn’t possibly be delivered via mail, lest it be gnawed at by “rascally postmasters” and arrive half-eaten?

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In its nascent century, The Baltimore Sun could not make up its mind. As the country barreled toward civil war, the newspaper’s editorial office sat defiantly in the pro-pumpkin pie camp. But decades later, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction — and it swung hard.

At least you couldn’t say The Sun has been a fence-sitter in this gourd awful debate.

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Mentions of the squashy dessert can be traced back to the paper’s first year in circulation. As state leaders across the country set dates for a Thanksgiving holiday, The Sun kept track in its pages, often pleading with then-Gov. Thomas Veazey to announce such a celebration in Maryland.

And — according to Old Line Plate, a cooking history blog authored by Kara Mae Harris — almost all of these briefs were accompanied by nods to pumpkin pie, which at times verged upon fawning.

In November 1837, for instance, the Portland Times teasingly offered to mail The Sun a pie, so long as the paper paid for postage. In response, The Sun chided the Times for the silly idea: not only would the parceled pie’s postage cost a pretty penny, but if delivered by mail, the “‘rascally Van Buren postmasters’ would be knawing [sic] away at it at every post office, and by the time it arrived here it would be half eaten up.”

“Why don’t our Governor move in the important matter of appointing a day for thanksgiving?” the paper bemoaned. “Pumpkin pies are coming from all quarters, and no day set apart yet.”

Just a handful of years later, to the absolute delight of The Sun’s editorial office, Gov. Francis Thomas proclaimed Dec. 14, 1842 a day in which Marylanders should abstain from all secular employment to instead rejoice in prayer, praise and thanksgiving for the “ALMIGHTY.” Before printing the proclamation in full, The Sun couldn’t resist adding that it “might take some small credit to ourselves for a suggestive agency” that preceded the governor’s announcement.

As the much-awaited celebration approached, The Sun’s editors could hardly contain their glee. In a briefing, they wondered how the day might be spent — slipping in yet another mention of their favorite encrusted gourd treat.

“The custom in other States, where a day has been set apart of this kind,” they warbled, “is in the forenoon to go to church, then dine on roast turkies, plumb puddings and pumpkin pies, in the afternoon innocently amuse themselves and close the evening with a grand ball.”

But mere weeks before the special day, one reader had not yet gotten wind of the good news. In a sour message signed “N.O. Pie,” the anonymous writer mourned the fact that Thanksgiving had not yet been celebrated in Maryland, writing that The Sun’s editor was obliged to go down east “and there eat his pumpkin pies and have his thanksgiving frolic.”

The Sun was quick to set the concerned reader straight, though, proclaiming that “our Governor has come out like a man and appointed a day of thanksgiving.”

However, as the century turned, so did the paper’s fondness for pumpkin pie. In 1907, in what could only be described in modern terms as an epic takedown, the editorial office excoriated the dessert, branding it as a “still benighted alien” in Maryland — “tolerated, but not loved.”

“The pumpkin may be good enough for New Englanders, but it is disgusting to all educated and refined Marylanders,” the column reads. “Let it be fed to visitors only. Let it be anathema!”

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What had spawned such an abrupt shift in tone? In a blog post, Harris posits that the pie’s association with Northern “Yankees” could be to blame, as some Southerners wrung their hands over whether the proliferation of pumpkin pie could edge out their beloved sweet potato pie from the Thanksgiving table.

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But another shoe was yet to drop. In 1972, a contributor to The Sun declared Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie “a sacrilege, a travesty on all that we hold near and dear.” Before sharing a recipe for the dessert, she declared without scruples:

“Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!”

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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