Your Pumpkin Pie is a fake, but Thanksgiving will be OK


Have you heard the old joke: “When is a pumpkin not a pumpkin?  When it’s a pie.”  It’s true!  Most pumpkin pie, or more accurately, the pumpkin pie filling and canned pumpkin used by most Americans, contains not pumpkin but Butternut, Dickenson, or other winter squash.


If you’ve been picturing a field of halloween jack-o-lantern stock being rolled right over into Thanksgiving table stock … you’ve got another think coming.  The orange paste that comes in cans is certainly not made from what we think of as pumpkin but from other varieties of winter squash.

Libby’s, owned by Nestle, is one of the most pervasive brands on the market.  They’ve created a special canning variety of squash that “the company developed themselves,” which certainly doesn’t make me feel better (looming specter of GMOs) and then officially named it the Dickenson “pumpkin” for a nice pumpkin-y feeling.  The FDA labeling enforcement department doesn’t care about this orange washing of canned winter squash.   Under the heading of “Pumpkin,” they allow for a broad definition of the word which includes squash “sometimes mixed intentionally to obtain the consistency most acceptable to users.”  I love being called a user in the context of baked deserts.

So this holiday season, when people get up in arms about the lack of pumpkin in their Pumpkin Spice Lattes (they really do that), do them one better: tell them there’s no pumpkin in their canned pumpkin.


IS this just another instance of shoddy or shifty FDA regulations and willful misleading by the processed food industry?

Maybe.  But it might not be a terrible thing in this particular case.

Here’s why: when you buy a can of “100% pure pumpkin” you might reasonably expect to get just that …  but what you are really craving is the pumpkin flavor that tastes like every Thanksgiving you can remember.  And what we taste as a “pumpkin” … really isn’t one anyway.


In the interest of science (and tasty desert), my family made an experiment in 2009 to determine which was better for pie: genuine pumpkin or the squash which was recommended by our favorite farmers market stand.  We roasted both in the oven and then did a taste test.

fabriKate taste test

The result: hands down in favor of squash.  It was more orange in color, less stringy in texture and, according to several independent tasters, “tasted much more like pumpkin.”  Go figure.

That year we used a 50/50 mix of both for the pies (it would have seemed wrong to toss one).  But, since then, we haven’t bothered with any pumpkin for the Thanksgiving pies … we go straight for the butternut squash: easy, local and delicious!

Here are a few other people’s experiments with substituting squash for pumpkin:

  • The image above was too beautiful to pass up!  It’s from the blog post of sewing and food blogger FabriKate who also got curious about the difference between canned vs fresh and pumpkin vs squash.  Her spoons hold Libby’s canned, Delicata squash, Jarrahdale pumpkin, Sugar Pie pumpkin and found pretty much what I did – that pureed Delicata squash tastes much like the canned … and the real pumpkin tasted like vegetable pie.
  • Food writer, Melissa Clark, talked about her experiences with tricking her family into eating (and liking) butternut squash pie for All Things Considered around Thanksgiving last year.  Check out her recipe appended to the article.


Roasting a butternut squash isn’t quite as quick as opening a can … but it really is nearly as easy as pie.  Just slice it in half, remove the seeds, flip cut side down on a cookie sheet and bake at 400 degrees till tender (maybe 25 minutes).  Then mash it up with a fork and use it just like canned pumpkin puree.  If silky smooth pie is your preference, you may want to run it through a food processor.

Since Thanksgiving is still two whole days away, you still have time to grab a squash from the grocery instead of (or in addition to) can.  You might try your own experiment or ask for recommendations from friends, farmers or the grocer.  Feel free to branch out – food diversity is delicious.

Check back here Thursday to find out what the moss::: team loves most about Thanksgiving.  We’ll share our favorite traditions, tips and tricks to celebrate this foodiest of American holidays.  We certainly are thankful for that!