The Four Best Presidential Pumpkin Pies: From the first Adams and Johnson, Ike & Reagan

When it comes to Presidents, the quality of political policy is entirely inconsistent with that of their pumpkin pie.  

There’s not even a preference for pumpkin over mince, for example, among those regularly rated as either the “best” (like George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt) or the “worst” (like Warren G. Harding or James Buchanan).  Further unscientific analysis emerges from the fact that among the four best Presidential Pumpkin Pies, one is from a highly popular Chief Executive (Ronald Reagan) while another is from the first to be impeached (Andrew Johnson).

The most significant yet alarming fact supporting this theory, however, was an unavoidable conclusion unanimously reached after cautious testing of all documented Presidential Pumpkin Pies by an investigatory committee of one: the two pumpkin pies and one associative squash pie of Abraham Lincoln, the President consistently rated as the best were, in fact, consistently the three worst.

It’s the four best pies presented here, however, in time for Thanksgiving, each a slice of demographic diversity, Boomer to Gen-X, from the shores of the Bay State shores to the Great Smokies of the South.

When you’re done reading or eating,Vote! in the Presidential Pumpkin Pie Poll at the bottom!

 John and Abigail Adams Olde Style Pumpkin Pie

John and Abigail Adams Olde Style Pumpkin Pie

An early 20th century depiction of the New England kitchen of John and Abigail Adams.

As Mayflower descendants and Massachusetts residents, John Adams and his wife Abigail recognized “Forefather’s Day,” the December 21 anniversary of the landing there by the Pilgrims, there being no annual national Thanksgiving holiday in their lifetime.  Even before the first Thanksgiving in 1921, however, pumpkin pie was familiar to the Pilgrims as part of English-American cuisine, the orange fruit having been introduced to Europe from Asia centuries earlier. In maintaining this ethnic food tradition, the only real difference in taste between John Adams and his ancestors was the pie’s degree of sweetness. With the more refined white sugar less available and thus, more expensive, Adams more often tasted that “olde style” tang on his tongue of the molasses-soaked brown sugar. Cost was an important factor to such practical Yankee farmers as John and Abigail, who put to full use every bean and gourd they garden-grew. Still, “olde style”  didn’t mean a mouthful of mealy pumpkin pulp baked with blackstrap syrup. The mix of powders ground down from the dried fruit of the nutmeat tree, ginger-root, cinnamon bark, and flowering clove buds even proved pungent enough to please the famously tart tongue of Abigail Adams. 

1 pastry pie shell

2 eggs

1 cup of whole milk

1 ½ cups cooked pumpkin

3/4 cup brown sugar

¼ cup dark molasses

1 tablespoon flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon of powdered ginger

1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg

2 teaspoons of pulverized cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon of pulverized whole cloves

Preheat over to 425. Sift spices and flour together into a fine powder until there are no lumps. Beat eggs well, and then blend with milk into a consistent custard. Mix pumpkin, molasses and brown sugar well, and then fully incorporate the spice powder into it. Lastly, blend the custard in until it is all thoroughly smooth. Pour into pie shell and bake 45 minutes or until done.

Andrew and Eliza Johnson’s Candied Yam Pie

Andrew and Eliza Johnson’s Candied Yam Pie

The dining room of Andrew and Eliza Johnson in their Greeneville, Tennessee home (NPS)

Andrew and Eliza Johnson (Presidential years, 1865-1869), the couple which inherited the White House upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and exit from there of widowed Mary Lincoln, are among the most obscure presidential couples. While Reconstruction Republicans who tried him for impeachment (he was acquitted and not removed from office) found “Andy” arrogantly defiant, he was a personally humble man, as was Eliza, whose mild tuberculosis limited her public appearances. Both emerged from early poverty in the foothills of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain range, often depending on root vegetables to survive, including the yam (while technically different, the sweet potato was then also called a “yam” in that region).  Different methods of cooking the yam offered a range of uses; if plain-boiled, it served as a dough base for bread while shredding it made it useful for pudding. Roasting makes the most of yams to use in this pie.

1 pastry pie shell

1 ½ cups of roasted and mashed sweet potato

½ cup brown sugar

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

2 eggs

¾ cup of half-and-half (half cream and half whole milk)

1 tablespoon of melted butter

Preheat oven to 400. A natural candying results from roasting the sweet potatoes at a lower temperature for a longer period of time. Done right, they’re soft with caramelized syrup. When the yams have cooled, mash them well. Mix this with brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. Beat eggs well. Blend eggs, milk and butter. Mix the dairy blend with the spiced yam custard until one consistent color. Pour batter into pie shell. Bake for 45 minutes.

Ike and Mamie Eisenhower Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

Ike and Mamie Eisenhower’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

The Eisenhowers share a meal with their son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

There’s no proof that had Mamie Eisenhower shared this recipe with Soviet First Lady Nina Khrushchev the Cold War might have defrosted like a Frigidaire but even in an era of fluffy pies the Eisenhower Pumpkin Chiffon Pie stood up with attention. The frothing ingredient was that wonder of the Atomic Age itself – unflavored gelatin. Hailed and printed every Fifties Thanksgiving, from sea to shining sea, the secret of the pie’s tasty lightness spread fast.  Even today, remnants of it among thousands of newspaper food section clippings haunt rusted recipe-card boxes that now litter the fleamarkets of our land. Despite her declaration that this was truly her all-time favorite dessert, Mamie was never known to whip it up for Ike or anybody. Mrs. Eisenhower was known to be skilled in the kitchen only for her fudge and homemade mayonnaise. Most reports suggest it was often hard to tell the difference.

Making Eisenhower Pumpkin Chiffon Pie in a graham-cracker crust does corrupt its Mid-Century Modern integrity but it also deflates 21st Century Snark by using some old-school irony to uphold a Fifties credo: baking in the future really was new and improved, after all.

Mamie Eisenhower at a hotel luncheon party hosted by friends and admirers in honor of her November birthday, where she enjoyed some pumpkin pie the week before Thanksgiving – and her Winston’s.

1 graham-cracker crust pie shell (suggested) or pastry pie shell

1 envelope of plain gelatin

4 tablespoons of cold water

3 egg yolks

3 pasteurized egg whites

½ cup whole milk

1 ½ cups of pumpkin

2 teaspoons of cinnamon

3/4 cup brown sugar

½ teaspoon of ginger

¼ teaspoon of allspice

½ teaspoon of salt

3 tablespoons of sugar

Heavy whipping cream and 1 tablespoon of rum (optional)

Soak gelatin in the water for ten minutes. Blend well the brown sugar, egg yolks, milk, pumpkin, salt and spices in the top of a double-boiler as the water in the lower-pot begins to boil furiously. Keep stirring until the custard is entirely thickened and starting to bubble. Remove from the stove. Add the softened gelatin into the custard and stir until it is entirely dissolved and well-blended. Then, refrigerate the custard. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff peaks of meringue, gradually adding sugar into them. Gently fold this meringue into the pumpkin custard until it is all a consistent color. Gently pour into the graham-cracker crust pie shell. Refrigerate the pie for several hours, certain that it is well-chilled. If desired, freshly whip cream with rum and top the pie with it.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s Pumpkin Pecan Pie

Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s Pumpkin Pecan Pie

Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and the President’s daughter Maureen Reagan, enjoying Thanksgiving at their Santa Barbara, California home Rancho del Cielo, 1985.

Far richer and sweeter than most pumpkin pies, this favorite of the 40th President and First Lady (White House years 1981-1989) more reflects his taste than hers. Among the kitchen staff, Ronald Reagan was renowned for his sweet tooth, not only munching on the Jelly Belly brand of artisan jellybeans he helped make famous, but with an especial weakness for coconut cake and coconut ice cream. This holiday pie proved so consistently popular during his eight Eighties years in the White House  that it was never phased out among the otherwise evolving range of recipe cards sent to the public which requested them. It’s like two pies in one, a traditional pumpkin with the familiarity of cinnamon fused into pecan pie’s base of dark corn syrup and vanilla extract.  Lavishing on a second indulgent layer of sugared or praline pecans is what gives this pie that extravagant Eighties edge.

1 pastry pie shell

4 eggs

2 cups of pumpkin

1 cup granulated sugar

½ cup dark corn syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup of chopped pecans

½ cup of praline or sugared pecans

Preheat over to 350. Beat the eggs, then add the pumpkin, sugar, corn syrup, vanilla extract, cinnamon and salt, certain that the sugar crystals have fully dissolved. Pour into the shell and cover with the chopped pecans. Bake for 40 minutes until the filling is firm, and then set a circular row of praline or sugared pecans around its perimeter.


Categories: Abigail Adams, Andrew Johnson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Food, History, Holidays, John Adams, Presidential Foods, Presidential Holidays, Ronald Reagan, The Eisenhowers

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4 replies »

  1. Mr. Anthony,
    “Do you think the Road Commissioner would be interested in my wife’s recipe for pie-crust?”
    Calvin Coolidge

    • Ah – now wasn’t that for Grace Coolidge’s apple pie? And my research shows him with a far closer association to “Connecticut Custard” pie, which basically seems to have been a heavy-duty nutmeg custard pie, almost like baked eggnog. Sort of stunned by the lack of Coolidge connection to pumpkin pie~!

  2. I can’t wait to try Mamie and Ike’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie!!

  3. Whoa… Tough competition! Oh well, being a vegetarian for over 27 years, I couldn’t go for the Ike and Mamie Eisenhower Pumpkin Chiffon Pie… It takes gelatin! My vote goes to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, but just because I have a soft spot for pecans. And the picture looks great too! 🙂


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