Happy Fall! For this month’s Dining on the Rails, we are featuring a fall staple to usher us into the season: pumpkin pie. We’ll also look at some of the history behind this iconic squash.

Gourds and Pumpkins

Before we share the recipe, let’s talk about pumpkins. Pumpkins are native to the Americas, with some indigenous nations cultivating them around 5,500 B.C.E as an integral part of their diet. The first mention of them in England was in the 1500s, where they became a popular option for pie. By the time colonists came to North America in the 1600s, they were likely already familiar with pumpkins, which grew in New England as well. In 1796, American Cookery, the first cookbook published in the U.S., featured a version of pumpkin pie similar to what is made today.

CoverAmerican Cookery, 1796

Figure 1 First edition cover of American Cookery, published in 1796.

Though pumpkins are typically planted from May through June, they are harvested in October after they turn orange which makes them the perfect autumn symbol. Pumpkin pie as a holiday staple was established not only due to the timing of the holidays after fall, but their use as part of Thanksgiving became an important political message. Thanksgiving was an important regional holiday in New England prior to the Civil War, with pumpkin pie as one of the signature dessert dishes. Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War in an attempt to unify the nation. Whether establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday helped America at one of its most tumultuous times or not, it did popularize both Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie “throughout the United States.

Thanksgiving Proclamation

Figure 2 Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a federal holiday, 1863.

Pumpkin pie is not the only festiveness that comes from pumpkins in the fall, however. As we are featuring this dish in October, it’s only fair to talk about the other use of pumpkins this month. As many of us know, pumpkin flavoring is a popular seasonal option in anything from coffee to beer. One of the more unique ways we see pumpkins used in October is carving faces or other designs, which are then left out on porches for display during Halloween. The history of these jack-o’-lanterns, like many American customs, was adopted from Irish customs that were adapted to the American environment. One version is based on an Irish legend, with the faces being designed to scare away a wandering spirit. In Ireland the locals carved faces into turnips, but when the Irish came to America, they found pumpkins to be a suitable alternative based on the pumpkins’ prevalence in the region.


turnip jack-o'-lantern

Figure 3 Plaster cast of a 1900s turnip jack-o’-lantern, on display at the National Museum of Ireland.

Modern jack-o'-lanterns

Figure 4 Modern jack-o’-lanterns

Pumpkins, like many other harvested items, were brought to market by rail. A series of early 1900s exaggerated post cards served to both advertise vegetables and also poke fun at the industry. Many of these showed various fruits and vegetables in exaggerated sizes, sitting on flatcars. Though we couldn’t find any examples of pumpkins on flatcars, we did find one example of them on a horse drawn cart (see figure 6).

1910 postcard

Figure 5 A 1910 postcard depicting massive cabbage on a Southern Pacific flatcar.


Exaggerated pumpkin postcard

Figure 6 Exaggerated pumpkin postcard in Kansas, 1908.

Our pumpkin pie recipe featured below is from James D. Porterfield’s Dining by Rail. It comes from the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which of course once served Colorado. We hope you enjoyed our brief history on pumpkins and its uses for autumn. If you try the recipe, as always, let us know on our social media or in the comments below!

You’ll need: large mixing bowl, two 9-inch pie tins, electric beater
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Preparation time: 1 ½ hours
Yield: 2 pies

1 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ ozs. butter, softened
½ cup light cream
1 cup milk
4 whole eggs
¼ cup molasses
1 tsp. pumpkin spice
Pinch, salt
1 2 ½ lb. can pumpkin
1 2-crust dessert pie pastry

In a large mixing bowl, combine sugar, butter, cream, milk, eggs, molasses, spice, and salt, and beat thoroughly. Add pumpkin. Continue beating until very smooth. Fill two pie tins lined with unbaked dough. Bake until knife inserted into pie at least 1 inch from crust comes out clean, about 45-60 minutes.

1945 Union Pacific Menu

Figure 7 Union Pacific menu featuring pumpkin pie as a dessert option, 1945.


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Past Dining on the Rails Posts:
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Dining on the Rails August 2023: Roast Leg of Mutton
Dining on the Rails July 2023: Mineral Water Lemonade
Dining on the Rails May 2023: Roast Spring Lamb
Dining on the Rails April 2023: Fruit Salad and Fruit Salad Dressing
Dining on the Rails March 2023: Union Pacific Cole Slaw with Peppers
Dining on the Rails February 2023: Bourbon Toddy
Dining on the Rails January 2023: Cinnamon Toast and Children’s Menus
Dining on the Rails December 2022: Harvey Girl Special Little Thin Orange Pancakes
Dining on the Rails November 2022: Old Fashioned Navy Bean Soup
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Dining on the Rails September 2022: Peach Cobbler
Dining on the Rails August 2022: Barbeque
Dining on the Rails July 2022: Mountain Trout
Dining on the Rails June 2022: Eat like a Hobo!
Dining on the Rails: May 2022 – Mother’s Day Shirred Eggs
Dining on the Rails: April 2022 – How about a nice Old Fashioned?
Dining on the Rails: March 2022 – French Toast, Anyone?
Dining on the Rails: February 2022 – A Chocolatey Valentine’s Treat!
Dining on the Rails: January 2022 – Western Pacific Pork Tenderloin
Dining on the Rails: December 2021 – Cranberry Sauce
Dining on the Rails: November 2021 – Oyster Stuffing!
Dining on the Rails: October 2021 – Chicken Pot Pie
Dining on the Rails: September 2021 – Chili
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Dining on the Rails: A Sweet Treat for your Valentine!
Dining on the Rails: Black Eyed Peas!
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