How an iconic American dessert wove its way into our Korean American Thanksgiving
An interracial marriage story and the humble pumpkin pie recipe that won my family over.
Friends, somehow it’s November and our hearts are heavy from so much trauma and suffering in the world. We find ourselves seeking small moments of comfort so we’re already thinking ahead to Thanksgiving. For paid subscribers, I’m sharing Mark’s recipe for pumpkin pie and a video where he shows you his dough rolling tip. One note: Substack doesn’t allow comments on paid posts unless you’re a paid subscriber which is a feature I dislike. Get in touch via email or social if you have any questions!
In our immigrant Asian household, dessert came in the form of cut up fruit at the end of every meal. Apples were quartered and peeled with a small v-shaped notch carved at the center of each slice to cut away the seeds from its core. I’d watch as the women in my family grabbed melons, apples, and whatever else was in season, expertly peeling and slicing with a knife, hands working quickly until a platter of perfectly arranged fruit materialized. The last touch was a smattering of toothpicks stuck across a handful of pieces for easy picking.
I’m not sure how old I was when I realized that fruit desserts weren’t really desserts at all—at least in the typical American definition of desserts. I don’t think we even had dessert on holidays aside from the ubiquitous fruit platter or traditional rice cakes, which as a kid, never counted as far as I was concerned. Holiday baking wasn’t a tradition I grew up with and we never ended Thanksgiving meals with pies. I must have felt like I missed out on years of home baking because at some point when I was 17, I started baking—carrot cake and banana bread mostly because those felt like less intimidating baked goods to begin with.
Our mishmash Korean American Thanksgiving table
I was well into adulthood when I had my first slice of pumpkin pie. In fact, it might have been Mark’s pumpkin pie which he baked over a hundred of every Thanksgiving at a restaurant where he was a Pastry Chef for years. I remember sinking my fork into the tip of the custardy wedge, having no idea what to expect. It was so peculiar to me. I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of a squash that was pureed and baked into a pie shell, even though I was accustomed to baking with carrots and zucchinis. I think it was the texture that didn’t make sense to me, but I remember being surprised at the complexity of the flavors. It was unexpected and I was instantly a fan.
It was Mark who first brought true desserts to our extended family gatherings 20 years ago, and it was his pumpkin pie that introduced dessert to our Korean American Thanksgivings for the very first time, claiming a spot next to the fruit platters and rice cakes.
At our Thanksgiving table, Korean dishes were always the star, but we made sure to have side dishes of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and canned cranberry sauce alongside the galbi, acorn jelly, vegetable pancakes, meat patties, and the other countless banchan dishes that accompany every Korean meal. But turkey…it always felt like an obligatory afterthought. It was there because media and TV told us that this is what Americans eat, but it was always the bastard child at the table. Nonetheless, my mom baked one every Thanksgiving until my dad complained that he could’t take the smell of the bird cooking all day in the oven. When it was banished from our menu, it wasn’t missed and even my kids confessed it wasn’t their favorite. Looking back, my dad’s aversion to turkey might have signaled the beginning stages of his Alzheimers, when the signs can still go unnoticed even as his senses began to confuse him.
Food is the universal language of diplomacy
I was the first on either side of my family to marry outside of our race. It isn’t a big deal now, but being the first always comes with cautious steps. I like to think that Mark’s baked goods were his offering and a way to ease into the fold of my family of immigrants. My aunts and grandmother admired his kitchen skills, which for their generation was just unheard of having a man around in the kitchen. For the men, it was all about winning them over with their stomachs.
My dad didn’t have a sweet tooth. Most cakes and cookies were too sweet for him. This isn’t surprising considering sugar, flour, and butter weren’t ingredients that were readily available in Korea in the years he grew up there. It explains why baked goods aren’t traditionally in Asian cuisines, though there’s a recent wave of acclaimed Korean pastry chefs in the last decade making their mark in the pastry world right now, and cafe culture in Korea rivals anything I’ve seen here in the U.S. When my dad first met Mark, I’m not sure he really understood what a pastry chef was, and this certainly didn’t do him any favors towards his acceptance of this “foreigner” into our family. Pastry chefs weren’t jobs that existed in Korean restaurants and that’s primarily where my dad went out to eat. I remember his puzzled expressions when he questioned what Mark did for a living. “He bakes cookies in kitchen all day?” (in fact, later he would when we opened our business.)
It may not have been until Mark brought around his pumpkin pie that my dad was truly won over. He’d picked at birthday cakes and brownies, shoving aside the frosting complaing that it was too sweet. But, the pumpkin pie—it was almost familiar to him, not unlike a pumpkin porridge which does exist in Korean cuisine. It wasn’t overly sweet and the spice mixture added something different to what he was accustomed to in a dessert. I remember my dad taking one bite and with a tilt of his head, nodding in approval with a “not bad, pretty good.” He wasn’t a man of effusive compliments, so this was as good as it got for a stamp of approval.
Interestingly, Mark doesn’t recall eating pumpkin pie as a kid either, but he wonders if that is a by-product of his very picky eating habits so maybe the pies were there all along. He only started making them at work for one of his restaurant jobs, his first foray into this iconic dessert, which is funny to me because when I think of this time of year, I always think of his pumpkin pies.
Perfecting his pie recipe while he was a Pastry Chef at the Central Park Boathouse which used to be (is it still?) an iconic NYC restaurant back in the day took years. He and his staff would serve up to 1200 people every Thanksgiving and make close to 100 pies for that service alone. We once shared this recipe with Saveur Magazine years ago when we still had our bakery business. The food editor introduced it as a pumpkin pie that wasn’t afraid to be bold with the spice ratio—which was fitting since our entire business revolved around spices in our sweets.
It’s pumpkin pie season once again and we’d like to share it with you here. Just for fun, we put together a quick video of the pie making process, including Mark’s tip on rolling pie dough.