A Gluten-Free Pumpkin Pie With a French Story to Tell

Homesickness in the form of custard and cream.

November 20, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

In the early 2000s, I went to college at an American university in Paris. Not as a year abroad, but for my whole undergraduate degree. It was as lovely as it sounds—storybook, even—on all days except Thanksgiving. Nearing Thanksgiving, the tone of the American students’ standard-issue, anecdotal homesickness would drain from our community and collect in small pools of expatriate-friendly establishments, mostly in search of food.

When all of my other friends in the States were getting time off and flying home to see their families, Garth and I were still in school, unreleased for the holiday. It inspired us to make our yearly pilgrimage to peripheral grocery stores, ones we knew stocked proper brown sugar in the box the texture of wet sand, vanilla wafers or marshmallows. We found these corners of Paris through word-of-mouth, from flyers on the cork board at our university. We were exhausted from trying to explain our American ingredients to the glaring attendants at our regular markets, always desperate for something that transported us home, a taste of familiarity and belonging.

With our odd grocery bounty, we collected homesick Americans, too. The only thing we all had in common was this feeling of displacement, something we were able, somehow, to celebrate with this one meal together at the end of November. On other days, the “freedom fries” movement at the time had most of us falsely claiming Canada as home, and our quiet anonymity felt exciting. But on Thanksgiving, our homesickness was spread out on a table and shared, feasted upon with a common ache in our bodies.

Making my first pumpkin pie in Paris was nearly impossible, testing my complicated version of patriotism with every turn. Garth and I happened to be living in an apartment with an oven, which actually wasn’t common among students. Home baking wasn’t a thing at that time in Paris. It has changed slowly over time, I’ve noticed throughout my visits, but back then the baking was left to the boulangers and their corner shops. My French friends insisted that home baking was distinctly American, which cemented my resolve to press on in honor of The Feast. Of course I had made pumpkin pie before, but only from the recipe on the back of the orange can from the supermarket. (Needless to say, neither these cans nor supermarkets existed in Paris then.)

With our odd grocery bounty, we collected homesick Americans, too. The only thing we all had in common was this feeling of displacement, something we were able, somehow, to celebrate with this one meal together at the end of November.

I decided to push on and make pumpkin pie from an actual pumpkin, even though I had no idea what the hell I was doing. After gesturing wildly to a variety of opinionated, dissenting assistants at the markets near our apartment—“Why would you use this for a dessert?”—I returned home with a beautiful squash with dense, dark reddish-orange flesh.

A quick search on the Internet, which was still in its earliest days in Paris then, instructed me to bake it and scoop out the flesh. I awkwardly fumbled with the gourd, but through much cajoling, it eventually manifested itself into something resembling canned pumpkin, that familiar friend. I knew how to do the rest from memory, and ended up with a Franco-American pumpkin tart for our Thanksgiving table that year.

That Thanksgiving wasn’t the last in which I felt like a stranger in a foreign land, searching for familiarity and comfort through tradition. Last year’s feast was the first I had to contend with my new diet, after I was diagnosed with cancer. It felt like a personal insult to the holiday: gluten- and sugar-free, no potatoes, no corn, no bacon. It ended up being store-bought and impersonal, though what it lacked in authenticity, it more than made up for in thanks.

Food had become less important to me in some ways through my treatment—I saw ingredients as a measure of health first, and flavor second. It was a sacrifice I made then, and still do today in many ways.

This year, however, I wanted to embrace my restrictions, to really celebrate them, and create something beautiful, something tasty, something unutterably authentic for my life now. In a way, this newfound challenge reminded me of cooking that first tart in Paris, of translating not just words or ingredients, but a whole new culture.

I am very proud—dare I say, with a tinge of patriotism even?—that I did it. I made the perfect pumpkin tart for me and my family, and my life now. And though it’s a completely different pie, it feels somehow a connection to those years back then in Paris, when I couldn't even find a can of pumpkin puree. Only this one tastes better than any from my memory—and I even used the stuff from the orange can.

What's your oldest Thanksgiving memory? Please share with us in the comments below.

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Before her diagnosis, Caroline wrote a book on cakes called Cake Magic!. She started developing a birthday cake using her gluten-free mix found in that book. Check out other recipes she’s developing for her new life—and the stories behind them—on her blog, The Wright Recipes. Her next book, Soup Club, is a collection of recipes she made for her underground soup club of vegan and grain-free soups she delivers every week to friends throughout Seattle's rainy winter.

1 Comment

Stephanie G. November 20, 2018
Thank you for this delicious sounding recipe. You are an inspiration.