I have cherished memories of holiday meals from my childhood. Certain foods were always on the table for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it just wasn’t a festive spread without them. Pumpkin pie for dessert was a must. But that was many years ago and about 8,000 kilometers across the Atlantic Ocean, and the pie I bake today is quite different from the one my mother made.Read more: What happened to my pumpkin pie?
Pumpkins originally come from America. Although first imported to Europe centuries ago, they were not always as popular as they are now, particularly in Germany. Also, Germany was not nearly as Americanized several decades ago as it is today. There were virtually no breakfast cereals on the shelves, hardly any American candy, fewer processed foods, and the basic ingredient for pumpkin pie was missing, too.
You might think that ingredient would be pumpkin, which is very wholesome of you and I encourage you to keep up your unprocessed diet principle of “no trash.” But when I was growing up, processed foods were all the rage. So in my family, we used what most people did to make pumpkin pie, lovingly referred to as “pumpkin stuff,” which was canned pumpkin. You just had to open the can (which we did with our automatic can opener, of course; wouldn’t want to exert too much effort for something we’re putting in our bodies), add spices, eggs, and condensed milk, pour it into a pie shell and bake it.
Welcome to 1970s American cuisine. It was a culinary Wild West of pre-packaged food, ready-made ingredients and unresearched chemicals. Yee-hah!
But not only did Germany have no pumpkin mix, they didn’t even have pumpkins. This is hard to fathom today, looking at the roadside tables here piled high with the giant orange fruit, just like in the U.S. It’s easy for me to wax nostalgic while standing at one of these tables, remembering the pumpkin patches at home—right up until a BMW or Mercedes roars up beside me, interrupting my reverie. This is Germany after all.
The large-scale cultivation of pumpkins became noticeable here at some point in the 1990s. But this was not to satisfy my craving for pumpkin pie but rather to bolster a growing Halloween tradition. There was money to be made. I quickly learned how to bake a pumpkin for a pie—and was embarrassed to discover how easy it was.
Feeling smug about this new expertise, during an October visit to my sister one year, I encouraged her to bake her Halloween pumpkin, too, instead of letting it rot on the front porch as usual. She thought I was out of my mind and told me so, inviting me with a sneer to do it myself.
“I’ll show her,” I thought. Not only did I bake it, I pureed it, divided it up into the cups of a muffin tin for freezing, then removed the frozen portions and stored them in a plastic bag. These would be perfect for use in pie or soup. Martha Stewart would have been proud. My 1970s-style-cooking mother would have been perplexed at all the effort.
But what I did not consider was my father, who was living with my sister at the time. Alone during the day, he would fix meals by scrounging around in the kitchen to see if there were any leftovers. After all, it’s a dad’s job to eat these leftovers—God forbid they learn how to cook mere decades after separating from their wives—and my father took that duty very seriously.
Now, what you must understand is that this was a man who insisted on eating burnt toast, which was fine, once you scraped off the ashes, even if what remained was only a third of the toast. He also made jumbo-sized bowls of popcorn that he would feed off of for a week, right down to the last stale kernel. In short, he was not the kind of person who questions food.
When my sister came home from work one day, he mentioned his latest culinary foray in her kitchen.
“Those muffins sure are funny tasting.”
“Muffins? What muffins?”
“The pumpkin muffins. The ones in the freezer.”
He had taken a frozen blob of pumpkin puree out of the bag, microwaved it, and wondered why the “muffin” melted. It was shaped like a muffin; therefore it must have been a muffin. It’s a testament to how one can be fooled by outward appearances, and to my father’s deep-seated certainty that anything in the freezer is edible, as is. He, too, was holding on to his 1970s mentality that all foods were ready to eat. The idea that something might require further preparation was foreign to him, especially if it required his involvement in that preparation.
My sister took several minutes to stop laughing.
That was years ago. Since then, I have refined my pumpkin pie art. Not only do I not use canned pumpkin, I have also graduated from making pumpkin pies with bright orange jack-o’-lantern pumpkins to using butternut squash, which is even better.
Another food item I sorely missed after leaving the U.S. was Campbell’s pea soup, the famous brand immortalized by Andy Warhol. My family ate a lot of different kinds of Campbell’s soup, four cans per meal for our family of seven (again, opened using the electric can opener, of course). Not finding any reasonable substitute here, I decided to make it myself. It was good, but it still didn’t seem quite right. It just didn’t compare with the original.
In a grocery store on a U.S. trip a few years later, I spotted my beloved Campbell’s pea soup on the shelf. My early memories came flooding back. I immediately bought a can. What a treat this would be, my favorite soup.
It was disgusting. I couldn’t stand it. Turned out my homemade pea soup was much better.
It’s a shame that I tried it again after all those years. It would have been better to preserve the positive memory of its taste in my mind, just like in the old advertising jingle:
That’s what Campbell’s soups are
Or not, I guess.