Pumpkin vs. sweet potato pie: The epic battle of the Thanksgiving desserts

The holiday season is here, Greater Cincinnatians! That means quality time with our favorite relatives, beloved family traditions, gifts galore and festive feasts.

Regardless of where you dine, you will likely find beloved dishes like dressing, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole and the grand finale: pie.

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But what is the official pie of the season: pumpkin or sweet potato? According to Herald Mail-Media, your pie preferences may depend on two factors: where you're from and your family traditions. If you've been on Twitter in the last decade, you know the debate between the two autumnal desserts is a long-standing topic.

But where did the rivalry begin?

Origins of the pumpkin vs. sweet potato debate

Tracing the roots of this decades-old rivalry is no simple task. It may be easy to sum up the debate with the stereotype that pumpkin pie is eaten by white people, predominantly in the Northeast, and sweet potato pie is eaten by Black people, mainly in the South. But that would be an oversimplification of the complex history of two iconic American desserts.

First, let's start with the origins of sweet potato pie. According to The Washington Post, sweet potatoes were first cultivated in Peru. Shipments of the root crop were sent to West Africa and Western Europe by Spanish traders during the 16th century.

Although West African cooks never gravitated toward sweet potatoes, their European counterparts did. Southern Kitchen reports that other root crops, such as cassava and yams, were more widely used, particularly in savory dishes.

The Washington Post reports that sweet potatoes, once referred to as "the white man's yam," became popular in Europe and America during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Black and white southern cooks implemented sweet potatoes into their culinary repertoire because they were easier to grow than pumpkins due to the warmer climate of the region. In turn, cooks from the North preferred to use the more accessible gourds.

Because many enslaved Africans did not have access to pumpkins or the yams they were used to, they improvised with sweet potatoes and were able to create new recipes reminiscent of home. Now this innovation has become a staple of Black American culture.

But where did pumpkin pie originate from? Well, the decadent pastry shares a similar history to its sweet potato doppelgänger.

According to the History Channel, pumpkins also originated in Central America and were brought to Europe in the 1500s. Over a decade later, pumpkins gained popularity with New England settlers who traveled to America on the Mayflower in 1620.

By the 18th century, Thanksgiving rose in significance in New England, along with the region's dessert of choice: Pumpkin pie.

But the debate was hardly settled.

According to The Washington Post, "After Emancipation, the ethnic and regional divides between pumpkin and sweet potato pies were laid bare in the national and regional media."

The History Channel reports that in the mid-19th century, pumpkin pie became a topic frequently found in the written works of several famous abolitionists such as Sarah Josepha Hale and Lydia Maria Child.

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Their love for the pie, and former president Abraham Lincoln's official Thanksgiving proclamation of 1863, made southern states feel their preferences were being replaced with northern traditions.

In short, the North (especially New England) was team pumpkin pie. But southern and Black communities were loyal sweet potato pie lovers.

While descendants of enslaved people have since formed communities all over the country, the love and loyalty toward sweet potato pie remain the same, as does the decades-long rivalry between the two delicious desserts.

Differences between pumpkin and sweet potato pie

According to The Great Bake, pumpkin and sweet potato pie are commonly mistaken for one another due to their similar color, taste and texture. The competing pies also known to contain similar spices like cinnamon, ginger and cloves.

Despite the similarities, there are notable differences. For instance, The Great Bake states that sweet potato pie typically has a lighter filling, coarser texture and sweeter taste, whereas pumpkin pie is denser and has more spices. The Herald Mail-Media reports that raw pumpkin is usually bland, so spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg help give it flavor.

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As its name suggests, sweet potatoes have a naturally sugary, bold flavor. Therefore, fewer spices are used in the making of sweet potato pie as opposed to its gourd rival.

Another notable difference between the two Thanksgiving treats is that pumpkin pie is made using fresh, pureed, canned or roasted pumpkins. While sweet potato pie can be made using canned sweet potatoes or yams, it almost always contains fresh vegetables. If fresh sweet potatoes are substituted with canned alternatives, pie purists may question the validity of the dessert and the individual responsible for making it.

The Enquirer newsroom votes for their favorite pie

What's the best pie for Thanksgiving? The Enquirer newsroom settles the decades-long debate.
What's the best pie for Thanksgiving? The Enquirer newsroom settles the decades-long debate.

Now that we all share a common knowledge of both pies, I had to know which dessert reigned supreme. So, I decided to bake one of each pie and assemble a panel of qualified taste testers (i.e. my coworkers) to settle the debate once and for all.

After accosting the newsroom with my homemade pies, I made them vote for their favorite. The verdict?

Believe it or not, sweet potato pie takes the cake, 8-2! When I first pitched this story, I was met with confused looks from my team. Imagine my surprise when most of them told me they had never even heard of sweet potato pie, let alone tasted a morsel of the delicious pastry.

Well, I am proud to report that I have officially converted The Enquirer newsroom into sweet potato lovers. The pie, created by my enslaved ancestors, beloved by members of my community, that evokes feelings of nostalgia and home, is the champion of this spirited competition. Sweet potato pie trumps pumpkin pie, hoorah!

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Pumpkin vs. sweet potato pie: The Enquirer newsroom settles the debate