By Devi Chandran (‘24)
You know it’s fall when the leaves plummet to the ground, a brisk breeze trickles through the chilly nights, and bathing suits are exchanged for the comfortable familiarity of a sweater. But the largest distinction of fall? Pumpkin spice! Its fragrant aroma brings the nostalgia of autumn along with it. Even as early as August, pumpkin spice goods are being sold in a variety of forms. But what are the origins of this autumnal classic?
Pumpkin spice does not actually contain any pumpkin at all. It is a mixture of spices including nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and clove- giving it an earthy flavor. According to history.com, pumpkin spice can trace its roots back to around 3,500 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered traces of nutmeg on ancient pottery shards in Pulau Auy, disproving the previous theory that humans did not consume nutmeg until 2,000 years later.
McCormick & Company, the largest firm in the global spice industry, introduced this spice combination in 1934. According to McCormick’s website, it began as “Pumpkin Pie Spice”, originally intended to add zest to a fall classic. Later christened “Pumpkin Spice”, the iconic favorite has been used from lattes to cakes. It comes as no surprise that the flavor combination was an instant success. In fact, according to McCormick’s retail sales in 2019, “Pumpkin Pie Spice was the fourth best-selling retail spice from September through November.”
It may come as a surprise that pumpkins have historical significance. As Scientific American puts it, “We have created an emotional brand around the concept of pumpkin spices that is deeply rooted in this tenuous connection to our agricultural history as a nation.” Colonists that landed in the Americas no longer had access to the root vegetables and domesticated meat they were accustomed to. Instead, pumpkins were used as a substitute for apples and barley. The article goes on to explain that after the immigration and global trade in the 1600’s, colonists could gain access to imported goods they were more familiar with. While other produce thrived, pumpkins were seen as nutrition for dire circumstances. In fact, “It was used as a cultural differentiator between American colonists and Europeans; the Puritans were labeled as having ‘pumpkin-blasted’ brains for having left England for the unknown Americas, and pumpkin eating was cast as backwards behavior.” Historically, Europeans labeled the early colonists as social misfits, and their dietary habits were shunned with the rest of their lifestyle.
Various corporations have adopted pumpkin spice as a seasonal must have. Starbucks, for example, offers baked goods and drinks with pumpkin flavoring as soon as the seasons hint at change. This year the Pumpkin Spice Latte had an early release on August 24, 2021. Surprisingly, this product was only recently added to the menu. It began on a fall day in 2003 when “Starbucks first brought the beverage to 100 stores in Vancouver and Washington D.C.” The result was the birth of a tradition. As Peter Dukes, the product manager that developed the famous latte, says, “Pumpkin spice has become more than just a beverage. It has become a harbinger of the season.”
Pumpkin spice is everywhere this October! Just the other day, I found it added to a fall flavored Chobani collection at Kroger. Whether it wafts from a candle, seasons your baked goods, flavors your drinks, or somehow ends up in your yogurt, you will most definitely interact with pumpkin spice sometime this month. While some love it immensely and others hate it with a burning passion – it really is an acquired taste – pumpkin spice has a rich history rooted deeply in our past.