Even if you don’t love the holidays, you probably enjoy the food. All of us have our favorites, from stuffing and mashed potatoes to latkes and kugel, but the real fun begins with dessert. If you’ve ever wondered which culinary hero first thought of pumpkin pie, or why we eat cakes shaped like yule logs, read on — these are the origins of five holiday treats.
Pumpkin pie is the long-reigning favorite Thanksgiving pie in America, but it often makes appearances throughout the fall and winter. And though pumpkins themselves hail from Central America and were first cultivated circa 5500 B.C., the pie that bears their name comes from across the pond. European explorers returned from the New World with pumpkins as early as 1536, and in England they were called "pumpions" — a variant of the French word pompon, which refers to their round shape.
It's believed that the orange gourd was served at what we now think of as the first Thanksgiving, though not necessarily in pie form; what's more, 17th-century pumpkin pie often involved boiled milk, apples, and an occasional lack of crust. We were well into the 1800s when the autumnal treat started to receive pride of place both literally and figuratively, becoming a mainstay of Thanksgiving (which at that time was mostly observed in New England) and even literature: Sarah Josepha Hale, a novelist and abolitionist who was an early proponent of making the holiday a national one, described pumpkin pie as occupying "the most distinguished niche" in one scene of her 1827 novel Northwood.
A full century later, in 1929, the canned food brand Libby’s debuted its now-ubiquitous canned pumpkin, complete with a simple recipe even the culinarily challenged could follow. Today a whopping 85% of all canned pumpkin comes from a Libby’s plant in Illinois.
Even if you've never tried this dessert, you're probably familiar with the lyric "now bring us some figgy pudding" from "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." While that song possibly dates to the 16th century, figgy pudding itself is at least two centuries older than that. In the 14th century, it was used as a food-preservation technique and resembled a porridge consisting of beef, mutton, wines, spices, raisins, and prunes. It wasn't until the 1700s, when fruit was more widely available, that figgy pudding became sweet, rather than savory, and much more similar to what we eat today.
You might notice one ingredient conspicuously missing from the original recipe: actual figs. We have the vagaries of Middle English to thank for that, as the word "figgy" (or fygey, ffygey, figgee, and several other spellings) didn't necessarily imply the use of figs, and its meaning changed along with the various recipes.
Whether you call it a Hanukkah doughnut or sufganiyah, this deep-fried treat filled with jelly and covered in powdered sugar is delicious in any language. And just as Jews eat matzah and other unleavened breads during Passover, there's a reason fried foods like sufganiyah (plural: sufganiyot) are served during Hanukkah: Doing so commemorates the miracle of the cruse of oil. This is among the oldest culinary customs of them all, as eating deep-fried pastries during Hanukkah was already considered a long-standing tradition in the 12th century.
As for the name, an Israeli folk tale suggests that God gave Adam and Eve sufganiyot to make them feel better after their exile from the Garden of Eden; this interpretation is rooted in the fact that sufganiyah reads similarly to sof-gan-yud-hey, or "the end of the Garden of the Lord."
Whatever your thoughts on fruit-based desserts, there's no denying that the love-it-or-hate-it mainstay fruitcake remains popular worldwide. (For another fruit-centric argument, be sure to ask your loved ones their thoughts on pineapple pizza.) All roads lead to Rome, and so does this particular dish's history: An early (we're talking 2,000-year-old) variant is said to have included raisins, pomegranate seeds, and pine nuts, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that other dried fruits, nuts, and honey were added to the mix.
It won't surprise you to learn that this Christmas cake is popular in countries such as Belgium and Switzerland, but did you know that Yule logs are also served in Lebanon and Vietnam? Made to look like, well, a Yule log, this genoise-based sponge cake first became popular in 19th-century France — hence its enduring popularity in Vietnam, a former French colony, as well as its original name of Bûche de Noël.
The ingredients — marzipan, meringue, spun sugar, and sponge cake — suggest that this dessert could have been around since the 1600s. Real Yule logs would traditionally be burned starting on Christmas Eve as a symbol of the new year — and, if they worked as intended, bring good luck. However, the cake version has been a more recognizable holiday symbol than its namesake for quite some time. So if you feel guilty about indulging in this seasonal treat, just tell yourself you’re doing your part to make 2021 better than 2020.