Whatever else is on your Thanksgiving menu, pies are a must. But how many, and what kind? At least two, since this year there will likely be fewer people around your table, and one has to be pumpkin. Choose whatever else the family favorite is, like apple or pecan, but on this day, pumpkin rules. Leftovers? Breakfast the day after.

Pumpkin pie has been part of Thanksgiving for a long time, going back almost as far as when the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving. Pies themselves have a long and tasty history, reaching as far back as medieval England. The fillings were more savory, not sweet, and might have included lamb, beef, maybe pigeon or rabbit, and heavily spiced with pepper.

Crusts were thick and bland and meant to hold the filling together as the pie cooked. It was then thrown away. It also wasn't a pie unless it had two crusts — a top and a bottom, in what was known as "coffin" style. For centuries, pies were also a means of preserving food. Sweetness and flaky crusts came much later.

As with many other foods, it was the Wampanoag Indians who showed the Pilgrims how to use pumpkin. They likely roasted pumpkins over an open fire or boiled them, often adding maple syrup. The insides were scooped out, mixed with milk, syrup and whatever spices were available, then the mixture went back into the shell, where it was roasted for hours in hot ashes. The end result was a pudding, similar in texture to the mixture we use today.

While pumpkins were a plentiful crop, some ingredients were not. One New England town in 1705 postponed the feast a week because of a shortage of molasses. The actual word "pumpkin" didn't come into use until years later. Until then, it was referred to as "pompion," what the French and English called a gourd, similar to a pumpkin.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

As the years went by, the colonists realized how good pumpkin could be, and gradually, recipes began to appear, many of which were highly seasoned with herbs and spices like thyme, rosemary, cloves, cinnamon and even apples.

The first American cookbook, written by Amelia Simmons and published in 1796 in Hartford, Conn., includes a recipe for "pompkin" pudding, which was to be baked in a crust. It gradually evolved over time until it turned into what you will bake next week. In fact, at some point after Lincoln declared the first Thanksgiving in 1863, pumpkin pie became a standard menu item for the holiday.

Pumpkin pies as we know them date back to 1929, when Libby bought a pumpkin cannery and grew a small pumpkin meant to be used in cooking. They gradually improved on it, and it's now called Libby's Select. The company plants more than 4,000 acres a year. The most popular recipe for pumpkin pie has been on the Libby label for almost 50 years.

It's estimated that more than 55 million pies are made from their canned pumpkin every Thanksgiving. Costco sells more than 2.5 million pumpkin pies the week before the holiday, and grocery stores sell upwards of 186 million, not taking into account those sold in bakeries or baked at home.

All of this brings to mind the last verse of a poem written by Lydia Maria Child in 1842: Over the river and through the wood — now Grandmother's cap I spy! Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

The Original Pumpkin Pie

This is very close to the original pumpkin pie of the Pilgrims. From SouffleBombay.com.

1 small sugar pumpkin, 4-5 inches in height and 18 inches in diameter

3/4 cup sugar

3 large eggs, plus 4 egg yolks

1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon cornstarch

Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare pumpkin by cutting off lid and scooping out seeds and pulp. Place on a rimmed baking sheet. Leave lid off. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the sugar, eggs and vanilla, and whisk until combined. Add the heavy cream, cornstarch and salt, and whisk until fully combined. (At this point, I might add pumpkin pie spice, but they didn't have it.)

Pour the mixture into the prepared pumpkin, leaving 3/4 inch of space between the filling and the top of pumpkin. Place in oven, without lid. Bake 15 minutes, then cover top of pumpkin with foil, but don't let it touch the mixture or it will ruin the top of the custard. Bake another 15 minutes. Lower temperature to 375 degrees, place the pumpkin lid on the tray, and bake 15 minutes more.

Remove foil and bake another 30 minutes or until a knife comes out mostly clean. Turn off oven and let pumpkin cool for an hour, then place covered in a cold garage or refrigerator and cool 6 hours or overnight. When ready to serve, scoop out custard into small dishes, scraping some of the pumpkin with it.

Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to life@postbulletin.com.