Welcome to The Food Historian's 31 Days of Halloween extravaganza. Between social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and this blog, I'll be sharing vintage Halloween content nearly every day this month!
Pop culture these days seems dominated by arguments over whether or not the pumpkin spice latte (or PSL) is "basic" or not, whether or not enjoying pumpkin spice flavored things can only happen during the few short months of autumn, and whether "fall creep" plays a role in "ruining" some people's summers. But have you ever wondered WHY we eat pumpkin pie spice - and other sweet spices - mostly in the fall?
Pumpkin pie spice is a mixture of sweet spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and either cloves and/or allspice. With the exception of allspice, all of these spices are native to Southeast Asia, especially the so-called "Spice Islands," more commonly known as the Maluku Islands (or Molucca Islands) near Indonesia, where nutmeg trees (which also provide mace) and clove trees originated. Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka, and ginger is native to Maritime Southeast Asia. Allspice is also a plant of the tropics, native to the Caribbean and Central Mexico. So why do we so strongly associate these flavors with cold fall and winter months in the Northern hemisphere?
A Brief History of the Spice Trade
This map of the Moluccas Islands was published in 1630 by Willem Jansz. Blaeu (1571-1638). This map clearly shows that very little was known at the time about the Indonesian Archipel. The map shows the islands close together though in reality they are often thousands of miles apart. From the collections of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek.
As with many things, it all has to do with money. Prior to the 16th century, all of these spices were available in Europe traveling via trade routes across Asia. Chinese and Arab traders traveled overland via the Silk Road or on ships from the Red Sea across the Indian Ocean. Cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper (native to the Malabar coast of India) were all known in Europe as far back as Ancient Rome. For centuries, Venice controlled much of the flow of spices into Europe, and the wealth gained by the spice trade may have helped spark the Renaissance.
But when the Ottoman Empire wrested control of the spice trade from Europeans in 1453, things changed. European nations, spurred by improvements in naval technology, started to search for their own routes to control the lucrative spice trade. Indeed, most of the European "explorers" who ended up in the Americas were searching for a shortcut to Asia and a way to bypass the control of the Muslim Ottoman Empire and cut out the middleman altogether, ensuring massive profits.
Instead of dealing with existing trade relationships, as Asian and Arab traders had for centuries, Europeans simply took what they wanted by force. The Dutch were particularly violent as they tried to take control of the Spice Islands through genocide and enslavement. Even after the plants that produced these valuable spices were successfully propagated outside their native habitats, the plantations which grew them commercially were often owned by foreign Europeans and also used enslaved labor to produce the spices more cheaply than ever.
Like sugar and chocolate, the plantation economy allowed spices to be produced in massive quantities quite cheaply. The flavors that were once the purview only of wealth European aristocrats were, by the end of the 18th century, much more widely affordable by ordinary people. By the middle of the 19th century, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and cloves (along with sugar and cocoa) were positively common. Which is why foods like gingerbread cake, spice cake, and spiced pumpkin and apple pies became such indelible parts of American food history.
But why the association with fall? In European cuisine, the most expensive foods were served around special feast days, like Christmas and Twelfth Night. Fruit cakes were rich in spices, spices flavored custards and puddings, and cookies flavored with ginger, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, and cloves were all staples of the winter holidays. As spices became less expensive over time, they were used in other applications, but their association with the holidays - and cold weather - continued.
In the United States, Americans flavored the prolific native squash with the now-familiar mixture of spices in a smooth custard pie. Pumpkin pie was born.
Creating "Pumpkin Pie Spice"
The name "pumpkin pie spice" refers to the mix of spices used to flavor pumpkin pies - among other things. Sadly, the mix itself contains no actual pumpkin, which is quite confusing when it is used as a flavoring agent sans pumpkin. Developed to flavor the smooth squash custards in a flaky crust we've all come to associate with Thanksgiving, the mixture of sweet, exotic spices was extremely popular. But as the 19th century turned to the 20th, the idea of hand grinding whole spices in a mortar and pestle was not only time-consuming, it threatened the use of spices altogether. Spice and extract companies like McCormick had been around since the late 19th century, but the 20th century brought a whole host of other companies to the scene, especially post WWII.
The spice mix itself was commercialized first during the early 20th century, as spice and flavorings companies brainstormed ways to make baking easier and more economical for customers.
Thompson & Taylor spice company was the first to create "ready-mixed pumpkin pie spice." The above advertisement, first published in 1933, features a woman asking an older woman with glasses "Mother - Why is it your pumpkin pies are never failures?" The older woman, who is spooning something into a pie crust, answers, "T&T Pumpkin Pie Spice my dear, makes them perfect every time."
The advertisement goes on to read, "Home-made pumpkin pie, perfect in flavor, color and aroma, demands the use of nine different spices. The spices must be exactly proportioned, perfectly blended, and, above all, absolutely fresh. For reasons of economy, most housewives are right in hesitating to buy nine spices just for pumpkin pie. But here is news! Now, for the fist time, you can get the necessary nine spices, ready-mixed for instant use, in one 10c package of T&T Pumpkin Pie Spice - enough for 12 pies."
Of course, they don't want to tell you what those nine spices are! But likely it was a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves, and perhaps also mace, cardamom, star anise, and black pepper.
Two years later, McCormick advertised their own "Pumpkin Pie & Ginger Bread Spice," a blend of "ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and other spices." I love that it is advertised as good for both pumpkin pie and gingerbread. Although we often associate gingerbread with Christmas, it was also often served at Halloween and throughout the colder months.
As canned pumpkin grew in popularity in the 20th century, other pumpkin desserts were also developed to use the same spice profile, including pumpkin spice cake.
Here's the recipe as written in the St. Louis Dispatch. Feel free to substitute shortening (and the margarine!) for butter.
Pumpkin Spice Cake
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 cup canned pumpkin
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup rich milk
METHOD: Cream shortening and sugar, add eggs, one at a time, and beat well, then stir in pumpkin. Sift dry ingredients and add alternately with milk. (If pumpkin is very dry, add more milk.) Stir in dates and bake in a loaf, in a moderate oven, 350 degrees Fahrenheit. To serve, slice thinly and spread with margarine. Delicious for tea.
Spiced pumpkin foods were largely relegated to desserts for most of the 20th century - pumpkin bars, cakes, muffins, and cookies were all popular, especially after the Second World War. But we weren't at peak pumpkin spice saturation just yet. Enter, the Pumpkin Spice Latte.
The Pumpkin Spice Latte and Beyond
Founded in 1971 near Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington, Starbucks originally started as a whole bean coffee company. But the specialty coffee business caught on in the dot com boom of the 1990s and franchises spread all over the country. In the 1980s, Starbucks had developed the popular holiday eggnog latte. The addition of a peppermint mocha in the early 2000s piqued corporate interest in specialty holiday drinks available for a limited time. They trialed a variety of drinks with focus groups, and the pumpkin spice latte was the surprise favorite. Released in 2003, it became a national phenomenon that only grew with time.
Starbucks was not the first to develop a pumpkin spice flavored latte, but they certainly popularized it. Nowadays September and October bring the onset of just about everything pumpkin spice flavored, regardless of the weather conditions where you live.
And that's the weird thing about pumpkin spice - today it is totally divorced from its geography and history. Born in the tropics, the product of genocide, enslavement, and greed, and associated for centuries with wealth and holidays, today it represents shorthand for a near-fictional concept of autumn that most Americans don't experience. Even in stereotypical New England, where pumpkin pie spice was arguably born, climate change is making autumn shorter and warmer.
I'm all for letting people love what they love, and PSL and pumpkin spice are no different. I love a good spiced pumpkin dessert, don't get me wrong. But for all the fuss about pumpkin spice, I'm an apple cider girl myself. Just don't tell Starbucks or the people who seem to think everything from breakfast cereals to hand soap should be flavored with pumpkin spice.
What do you think? Are you a fan of pumpkin spice? Tell me how you really feel in the comments!
And if you want to learn more about the history of pumpkin pie, check out my talk "As American As Pumpkin Pie: From Colonial New England to PSL" - available on YouTube.
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.