It’s that time of year. The days are getting shorter; we’re saying goodbye to tomatoes and corn; and apples and squash are front and center at the market. Which also means that around every corner and in every shop is something flavored with pumpkin spice.
Pumpkin spice lattes. Pumpkin spice candles. Pumpkin spice popcorn. Pumpkin spice soap.
While the relentless ubiquity of pumpkin-spiced everything can get a little overwhelming, I'm not mad about it. It’s warm and cozy, like pulling on a flannel, a sweater, or a favorite beanie.
According to McCormick & Company, the fall season accounts for about 80 percent of the company’s retail sales of its signature Pumpkin Pie Spice, which debuted in 1934. By 2019, the blend was the brand’s fourth best-selling retail spice from September through November. But how—and why—did the combination of ground cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger come to so thoroughly signal the start of autumn?
Many credit Starbucks.
The Seattle-based coffee empire unveiled its Pumpkin Spice Latte (aka the PSL) some 20 years ago, and in doing so, inspired a flavor profile that famously heralds the incoming season.
Much like spring, autumn signifies change. As we emerge from the heady days of summer, we enter a season marked by routine and tradition. The start of the school year; for many of us, freezing temperatures; and attempts to enjoy the outdoors while we still can. There’s also the steady stream of holidays, each with its own set of traditions. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Al-Mawlid Al-Nabawi lead into Dia de los Muertos and Halloween, which give way to Diwali and, in the U.S., the biggest pumpkin pie holiday of the year: Thanksgiving.
While Starbucks may have invented the PSL, and McCormick may have popularized the blend, neither really invented pumpkin spice. Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796)—purportedly the first American cookbook—includes two recipes for “pompkin” pie, both of which incorporate many of the spices we associate with the dessert today. The spices that make up the pumpkin spice blend have, of course, been around and similarly combined for ages. Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves are native to Asia while allspice is native to the West Indies, Mexico, and Central America. All were introduced to North America centuries ago via colonialism and trade.
It’s likely that pumpkin spice blend entered the retail market as a response to the introduction of Libby’s canned pumpkin in 1929. Let’s be honest: pumpkin isn’t the easiest ingredient to prepare, so shelf-stable canned pumpkin not only made life much easier for the home baker—it also made a once-seasonal ingredient available year-round.
And pumpkin spice? In an era of convenience and financial hardship, buying a single jar of spices (rather than four or five) was a wallet-friendly convenience, and McCormick answered the market’s demand.
Which brings me to pumpkin spice-flavored things. While some might feel pumpkin spice mania has gotten out of hand (a quick search for “pumpkin spice recipes” turns up over 100,000,000 results), I prefer to embrace it. For freshness, I like to make my own homemade blend, then have fun with it. I add my DIY pumpkin spice to everything from my morning coffee (why mess with a good thing?) to roasted fall vegetables (think carrots and squash and, yes, pumpkin). I might add some spice to a quick chicken marinade or fluff some into rice with raisins and nuts. Any number of soups and stews would benefit from a scoop of pumpkin spice—especially with a kick of chile and a little salt to make it more savory.
At the end of the day, though, nothing beats a really great pumpkin-spiced dessert—like these sweet-as-pie pumpkin spice snickerdoodles. Soft, spiced, and everything nice, these cookies have a crackly surface and a bit of tang from cream of tartar, which is cool and fun. They’re also cakey and cute, and I guarantee you’re going to eat one, then another, and by the time the day is over, you will have had at least five and go to bed with a slight tummy ache. But it will be worth it.
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