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The pumpkin pie lady
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Marian Biersdorf, right, with her daughter, Mary Summer. Biersdorf has kept the hand-carved wooden rolling pin made by her grandfather as a wedding gift for her mother. (MPR Photo/Dan Olson)
Homemade pumpkin pies will be on lots of Thanksgiving day tables for dessert. And whether they know it or not, the pie eaters in our region have Minnesota's Marian Biersdorf to thank for blazing a culinary trail. Thirty years ago Biersdorf used her college training and the memory of her mother's recipe to create what many of us know as the traditional pumpkin pie.

Golden Valley, Minn. — Life could scarcely have been busier for Marian Biersdorf in the late 1960s when she got the call from the Owatonna Canning Co. She was raising a houseful of children, managing a home and answering questions about recipes as a side job.

The canning company wanted to put a pie recipe on its Festal brand of canned pumpkin puree, and they wanted Marian to develop it. "Sure," she said.

"I had to cook anyway for five kids," Biersdorf says, "so I might as well cook and try some new things out."

Assignment in hand, Marian Biersdorf flew into action. Pumpkin pies of all sorts -- ones made with white sugar, or brown sugar, or topped with butter pecan or chiffon -- emerged from her kitchen.

The tasters were the five Biersdorf kids. They were dessert lovers to be sure, but they grew weary of the variations. Biersdorf laughs when she remembers.

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Image Mix and bake

"The kids said, 'Can't you just make a plain pumpkin pie?'"

The pie the children had in mind, apparently, and the recipe that's on the Festal canned pumpkin puree label, was mainly her mother's recipe.

"Mother always made a pie and she made it like that. It's like a custard," Biersdorf says.

The recipe is simple. It mixes up in five minutes, with Biersdorf's recommended blend of sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, eggs, evaporated milk and other simple but essential steps.

The rest might have been history, but Marian Biersdorf was already a legend in her own time. She was the velvety-voiced and neighborly radio companion for a recipe program that aired three days a week on KRFO, the Owatonna radio station.

Marian Biersdorf's recipes were inspired in part by her food science and nutrition training at the University of Minnesota.

Mother always made a pie and she made it like that. It's like a custard.
- Marian Biersdorf, on her pumpkin pie recipe

"If I gave a recipe over the radio it was usually my opinion. I told them I was the authority," Biersdorf says.

Once again, the Biersdorf children served as the taste panel. "I was probably one that didn't like a lot of it," daughter Mary Summer says.

Summer admits to being the family's finicky eater. She'd slip away from the table with her plate and flush the offending morsels away, thinking her mother was none the wiser. Marian says she saw -- and endured it all.

"It was a challenge, let's put it that way," Biersdorf says.

"Well, I thought I was being sneaky, I didn't think she knew," responds her daughter Mary Summer.

There were advantages to Marian Biersdorf's celebrity status. Her husband, John, was campaigning for one of his terms in the Minnesota Legislature. While doorknocking, Biersdorf says, her husband won a pledge of support due to name recognition -- hers, not his.

"The lady said, 'Are you a relative of Marian Biersdorf?' And he said, 'Yes.' 'I'll vote for you' she said."

Once in a while, daughter Mary Summer recalls, the Biersdorf children were cast as bit players on Marian's radio broadcasts.

"Every Christmas or holiday she'd have us girls, and we'd tape a show," recalls Summer. "And she'd make us read a recipe or sing a song or read a poem on the radio."

These days Marian Biersdorf lives in the Twin Cities suburb of Golden Valley, and still gives cooking advice.

For a better pumpkin pie, she says, throw away those old spices that have been sitting around, and use fresh ones. And follow the recipe, she says, unless you want to experiment. And if the experiment works, she says, claim it!

"When you do that, you call it, 'Pumpkin Pie Johnson,' not, 'Johnson's Pumpkin Pie.' That sounds more gourmet," Biersdorf advises. "And don't ever say that you fooled around with the recipe. That's your recipe, and you never tell them what you do."

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