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In November of 1621, English colonists celebrated what’s known today in the US as The First Thanksgiving. Indian natives and English colonists gathered around a celebration of their first successful harvest in a new land. The bounty that this feast enjoyed included one of the staple foods of Thanksgiving that’s become almost ubiquitous with Fall itself, and that’s the pumpkin. Referred to as “pumpion” in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, and as “pompion” in Love’s Labour’s Lost, this little squash may not have been used as a jack-o-lantern for Shakespeare’s lifetime but the pumpkin nonetheless has a role to play in the life of William Shakespeare. Our guest this week is an expert in the history of pumpkins and the author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. This week we welcome Cindy Ott to the show to share with us the 16-17th century history of the pumpkin. 

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Cindy Ott is an associate professor of the history and museum studies at the University of Delaware, and a professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy where she teaches an annual course about American Indian food and culture. Along with her book Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon (2012), she has published articles on food and society, landscape and memory, American Indian and white relations, and the practice of visual and material culture. Cindy spent more than a decade of her career at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service.

Cindy Ott is currently working on the book Buffalo Stew and Apple Pie: The Ongoing Reinvention of the Crow Indian Reservation about American Indians who have developed new strategies and collaborations, while drawing on deeply rooted customs, and to affirm their Native identity and relevance in the contemporary, globalized world.

In tandem, She is developing, with the Native nonprofit Center Pole, the Crow Indian Virtual Archive & Museum (civam-mt.org), a virtual repository of Crow Indian items and images housed in collections around the world, so this material can contribute to the on-going cultural life of Crow people. CIVAM also includes images and objects in the private collections of people living on the reservation today, so this more recent history is preserved and celebrated as well. Cindy began to collaborate with people in the Crow community in 2004 when she was the history curator at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.

I’ll be asking Cindy Ott about:

  •  How did pumpkins first arrive in England?
  • Cindy’s book points out that pumpkins were one of the food items at the First Thanksgiving in 1621. Cindy, how would pumpkins have been prepared at The First Thanksgiving?
  • Did the English colonists send pumpkins back to England from North America?
  • …and more!

For patrons of That Shakespeare Life you can now download our newest Pumpion Pye recipe booklet. Inside this booklet I include a historical recipe for Pumpion Pye along with a modernized version that provides step by step instructions (as well as measurements and temperatures!) you can use to recreate a historical 17th Century pumpkin pie recipe right at home.
Sign up on Patreon at the Digital Downloads Library level or higher to download right now.

Books and Resources Cindy Ott recommends:

Paul Freedman, ed., Food: A History of Taste (University of California Press, 2007

Alma Hogan Snell, Taste of Heritage: Crow Indian Recipes & Herbal Medicines (University of Nebraska Press, 2006)

James McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press, 2005)

Related Episodes of That Shakespeare Life:

Plymouth Colony with David and Aaron Bradford

William Bradford with David and Aaron Bradford

Stephen Hopkins with Andrew Buckley

Squanto, Jamestown, & Shakespeare’s England with Alden Vaughn


I am, as they say, but to parfect one man in one poor man, Pompion the Great, sir.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, V.2

c. 1625 Still life by Jacopo da Empoli (Jacopo Chimenti) (1551 - 1640) (Italian) Born in Florence, Italy. Died in Florence, Italy. | Painting shows details of food including a pumpkin/melon on the left hand side of the table. | Public Domain
c. 1625 Still life by Jacopo da Empoli (Jacopo Chimenti) (1551 – 1640) (Italian) Born in Florence, Italy. Died in Florence, Italy. | Painting shows details of food including a pumpkin/melon on the left hand side of the table. | Public Domain | Source

Pumpkin and Pompion Were Interchangeable with Melon

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, pumpkins were new to England and were considered on the same level as melons, gourds, and other round vine growing fruits and vegetables. There was not a lot of distinction in terms, and indeed, many herbals did refer to pumpkins as “pompion” which Cindy explains was a term for melon.

[The English colonists brought back pumpkins from North America to England] because people at that time were very interested in cataloging all the new animals and plants that Europeans were finding for themselves for the first time., Natives knew these plants for a long time, but Europeans did not. The pumpkin would appear in botanical dictionaries and use European terms. “Pompion” means melon.


“Go to, then: we’ll use this unwholesome humidity, this gross watery pumpion; we’ll teach him to know turtles from jays.”

Merry Wives of Windsor, III.3

1590 engraving of an indian village showing pumpkins planted in the garden, Virgina colonies, theodore de brye, after watercolor by John White, printed by Thomas Hariot
Crop from Theodor de Bry’s engraving shows a pumpkin patch, marked with an “I,” at the center of a sixteenth-century Indian village. | Theodore de Bry, Bird’s-eye view of a native American village (Secoton), 1590, engraving (after the watercolor by John White above) for  volume 1 of Collected travels in the east Indies and west Indies which reprinted Thomas Hariot, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, of the commodities and of the nature and manners of the naturall inhabitants | My source | Source for Image Crop | Additional reference to this image

Pumpkins were Also Called Pumpion, as in Pumpion Pie

The pumpkin was not an enjoyed vegetable for Tudor England, as you can see reflected in Mistress Quickly’s opinion of “pumpions” from Merry Wives of Windsor. Many people considered them gross and they weren’t popular to eat. In North America, the European colonists landing there in the mid 17th century had no choice but to find a way to eat pumpkin. It was plentiful in the new land and was one of their only sources of sustainable nutrition.

“They are in the herbals at this time. People are eating them, but they are eating them heavily cooked. Sometimes cook within the pumpkin itself, or throw the pumpkin into a stew with all kinds of other vegetables. They didn’t like it so it wasn’t eaten much. It was only eaten by the European colonists in the Americas because they had to rely [ on it to survive.]

Despite the lack of pleasure English colonists took from the pumpkin itself, it was a staple of their diet in the mid 17th century. A poem written by one of the Pilgrims at Massachusets in the 1630s details the prolific use of pumpkins in their diet:

Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pie our pumkins and parsnips are common supplies we have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon if it were not for pumpkins we would be undoon 1630s pilgrim poem Massachusetts
Poem Source

We have records of Pilgrims cooking “Stewed Pumpion” regularly when pumpkins were in season. As Cindy points out in our episode this week, pumpkins would have certainly been eaten at the First Thanksgiving, which is why they remain a traditional staple food on modern day Thanksgiving tables as well.

One recipe for Stewed Pumpion by John Josselyn in the 1600s, describes pumpkin stew this way:

The Ancient New England standing dish. But the Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fish or Flesh: It provokes Urine extreamly and is very windy.

John Josselyn, “Two Voyages to New England, Source

The description of being an “ancient” New England recipe is because stewed pumpkins had been cooked for as long as New England had been established. While apples were prolific in North America by the 1800s (thanks to John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed), there weren’t apples in North America during the time of the First Thanksgiving, so John Josselyn here is reference apples he’s had back in England for comparison.

“In the 1600s, apples made their way to North America, too. Crabapples preceded European colonists to America, but the fruit was not very edible. The Massachusetts Bay Colony requested seeds and cuttings from England, which were brought over on subsequent voyages to Boston. Other Europeans brought apple stock to Virginia and the Southwest, and a Massachusetts man, John Chapman, became famous for planting trees throughout Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. You might know him by his nickname, “Johnny Appleseed.” Source


“It pleased them to think me worthy of Pompion the Great”

Love’s Labour’s Lost, V.2

Painting of a pumpkin 1580s by Jacques de Morgues
Painting, c. 1580, by Jacques de Morgues, of a pumpkin. Source

There Was a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

William Shakespeare uses the term “pumpion” to refer to pumpkin in his play, Merry Wives of Windsor and then in Love’s Labour’s Lost he refers to someone named “Pompion the Great” which was so fun because it sounds like the Great Pumpkin from Charlie Brown. As Cindy points out this week, there was an actual Great Pumpkin for Shakespeare’s lifetime. Although it wasn’t a large looming figure similar to Santa Claus and it didn’t deliver presents to good little boys who waited patiently in pumpkin patches.

Instead, the phrase applied to the feeling of wildness or wilderness that could overtake a person when living away from the conventions of social class and structure of society that many were accustomed to in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Now the pumpkin is associated with the jack-a-lantern but Shakespeare was before that reputation. [The pumpkin] was associated with wild nature because of how large it could grow…People said you could hear it grow because it got so big… and it was used in art and literature to talk about a place and people. It is surprisingly long term how pumpkins were associated with women, reproductions, etc. For men it was associated with their heads often. It was something that was empty headed or pompous and not civilized. Shakespeare drew on those metaphors. The Great Pompion was something that was a fear that might happen to you if you’re exposed to a wilderness. The pompion represented a wild place, represented human nature–someone pulled by their natural drives and desires. Women, associated with their bodies, and for me, it’s associated with their heads…You could become more wild, or follow your more primitive instincts and these ideas/terms is the meanings. 

picture of Hannah Woolley featured on the front of her cookbook The Gentlewoman's Companion 1670
Hannah Woolley, as depicted on the frontispiece of The Gentlewoman’s Companion; or, a Guide to the Female Sex, published 1673. Since this was an unauthorised publication of her work the likeness is questionable. Public Domain. Source

Cooking the Pumpkin into a Pie, and Maybe Beer?

The English colonists can be said to have cooked a version of pumpkin pie (though it was considered a main dish, not a dessert for the mid 17th century), pumpkin beer didn’t arrive until the mid 18th century according to the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia who cite this recipe from 1771:

Receipt for Pompion (Pumpkin)  Ale: Let the Pompion be beaten in a Trough and
pressed as Apples. The expressed Juice is to be boiled in a Copper a considerable Time
and carefully skimmed that there may be no Remains of the fibrous Part of the Pulp. After
that Intention is answered let the Liquor be hopped cooled fermented &c. as Malt Beer.  
NOTE-There is no cinnamon, no nutmeg, no malt; it’s getting sugars for yeast to
metabolize from the flesh of the fruit. Hard-up colonists used all sorts of ingreients for
these sugars, including pumpkin, parsnips, molasses, cornstalks, and more.

Source

Despite pumpkin beer not being a staple (a little disappointingly, honestly), for the First Thanksgiving, we have several recipes from the mid 17th century for pumpkin pie.

Our friend and food historian, Neil Buttery, shares a recipe he found for pumpkin pie that dates to 1658. It comes from the book, The Compleat Cook, by W.M.

To make a Pumpion  Pye. Take about halfe a pound of Pumpion and slice it, a handfull of Tyme, a little Rosemary, Parsley and sweet Marjoram slipped off the stalks, and chop them smal, then take Cinamon, Nutmeg, Pepper, and six Cloves, and beat them; take ten Eggs and beat them; then mix them, and beat them altogether, and put in as much Sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froiz; after it is fryed, let it stand till it be cold, then fill your Pye, take sliced Apples thinne round wayes, and lay a row of the Froiz, and a layer of Apples with Currans betwixt the layer while your Pye is fitted, and put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it; when the Pye is baked, take six yolks of Eggs, some white-wine or Verjuyce, & make a Caudle of this, but not too thick; cut up the Lid and put it in, stir them well together whilst the Eggs and Pumpions be not perceived, and so serve it up.

Interestingly, I found another recipe by Hannah Wooley, in her book “The Gentlewoman’s Companion” from 1670 that also lists a recipe for Pumpkin Pie and it reads almost verbatim what was written by WM in 1658. So either this method of cooking pumpkin by was a widespread method of preparation, or Hannah borrowed a bit from WM, I’m not sure which is correct.

Either way, it seems we can say that a version of Pumpkin Pie was popular in England within reasonable proximity of Shakespeare’s lifetime, Truthfully, the newness of the pumpkin during Shakespeare’s lifetime, combined with how much we know people found them to be, as Mistress Quickly indicates, “gross” and “watery”, I can’t say for certain if this dish was something Shakespeare would have enjoyed, but he would have known about the pumpkin. It’s probably a lot like stewed prunes are today. This dish is considered “gross’ by many, and while you may know about it, but you are just as likely as not to have never tried it yourself. I get the impression from what I’ve read so far that for Shakespeare, pumpkins would have fit solidly into that category.

For patrons of That Shakespeare Life, we offer a printables library full of special guides and downloads like our newest Pumpion Pye recipe booklet. Inside this booklet I include a historical recipe for Pumpion Pye along with a modernized version that provides step by step instructions (as well as measurements and temperatures!) you can use to recreate a historical pumpkin pie recipe right at home. Sign up on Patreon at the Digital Downloads Library level or higher to download right now.