Like any good millennial, I love a good origin story. More specifically, I want to know the origin story of my food. Was this braised carrot grown in my state? Did my Brussels sprouts travel from across the country? I’d like a side of specificity with my dinner, please.
So when I came across tweets where people outside of the US were confused about Americans buying and happily consuming canned pumpkin, I was equal parts amused and intrigued.
My first reaction was to of course reply to the tweet tagging @LibbysPumpkin, but it was the middle of the night so I restrained myself from resurrecting a very old tweet and interrupting a social media manager’s evening. It did get me thinking, though:
- Not everyone has canned pumpkin? How do they make pumpkin pie?!
- What’s the real story behind Libby’s pumpkin anyway?
Before I knew it, I was down a proverbial rabbit hole. Here’s what I found there.
A Virginian Heritage
Libby’s story begins in 1795, with the birth of Elijah Dickinson in Spotsylvania, Virginia — just 62 miles south of Nestlé USA’s new home in Rosslyn, where I work today.
Dickinson had a full life — he survived a war, moved to Kentucky, married Mary Anne Burros and had many children, before making a choice that would change his life and the lives of Americans (yes, even you) forever. He packed up his worldly possessions and moved north to Illinois, near present-day Eureka, with one of his prized possessions: Dickinson pumpkin seeds.
It’s these seeds that would become the pumpkin that you find in a Libby’s can today. Unlike the classic field pumpkin which we all know for being scary on doorsteps in Halloween (the Cucurbita Pepo for all you nerds), Libby’s Pumpkin only comes from one proprietary pumpkin strand: The Dickinson pumpkin.
Morton: The Perfect Place to Grow
It turns out, the Dickinson pumpkin is actually descended from the Cucurbita Moschata. This pumpkin is large, growing to an average of 15lbs, with a beige exterior that lacks the deep ribbing of Jack-o-Lantern pumpkins. They make up for their homely exterior with a thick orange flesh inside, which is creamy and delicious! Dickinsons are picky — they can only be grown in just the right place, with just the right climate: 120 days of hot summer, warm nights, and not too much rain.
Meaning, the Dickinson pumpkin that you enjoy every year in Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie recipe (more on the origins of that below) is only grown in one specific field in one specific place: Morton, Illinois.
I like to think there’s some magic in the soil in Morton!
The Libby’s You Love
Elijah and several of his brothers bought their first canning facility in Eureka, Illinois. By 1920, the brothers had three facilities, and a canning facility in Morton is still active to this day.
When the brothers realized they could help people find inspiration by printing a recipe on the can, they decided to stick with creativity straight from the Dickinson family — it was actually Elijah’s grandmother Hazel who first whipped up Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie recipe.
Elijah would eventually sell his company and his special pumpkin crop to Archibald McNeill and brothers Arthur and Charles Libby in 1930, and their company would later join the Nestlé family in 1970. We’ve been continuing the legacy ever since.
In the end, this story is really about Elijah Dickinson. A man just trying to give his family a better life, who stumbled upon a perfect place to grow an iconic pumpkin.
I don’t know about you, but this Thanksgiving when I’m sitting at my table about to enjoy a slice (or two) of pumpkin pie, I’ll say a little “thank you” to the Dickinson family for their amazing contribution to my table. Without Elijah and Hazel, my thanksgiving menu wouldn’t be as delicious as it is today.
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