The Curious History of Pumpkin Spice

ll never forget my first pumpkin spice latte. I was being the epitome of a White Girl, with my cotton leggings, knee-high boots, and cable-knit sweater, even though it was a mild 70 degrees in my Florida city. I felt inspired and refreshed by the (relatively) cool weather and oddly bewitched by Starbucks’ whimsically festive decor. While I usually opted for a regular ol’ coffee, the call of the PSL rang out to me.

With my first sip, I was enamored. Supple, steamy, savory — just a hint of sweet zest and a creamy comfort swirling in this hot deliciousness. I loved it, even as it dawned on me:

This didn’t taste like pumpkin at all, let alone pumpkin pie as I’d been led to believe. It was just spice, and not even as spice-y as a chai tea latte.

I’d been tricked, but I wasn’t complaining. Why was I in love with a lie?

The Mad Magic of the Pumpkin Pie

Growing up, I was always in charge of making the pumpkin pie for holiday dinners. It was, after all, easy for a kid to do: Mix Libby’s Pumpkin Puree with Nestle’s evaporated milk. Dig out the tin of McCormick Pumpkin Pie Spice from the cabinet. Mix it all together with sugar and eggs and pour in a pie crust. Bake at 350 degrees until you can stick a toothpick in the center and it comes out clean.

For years, I attributed the delightful taste of pumpkin pie to the pumpkin. Then, after a rather tipsy cooking session in which I decided to sample canned pumpkin, I discovered that pumpkin itself is rather…boring. It was the spice that did the trick.

McCormick launched their Pumpkin Pie Spice in the 1950s. The mixture comprised the perfect combination of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice to make it easier for beleaguered housewives to churn out endless pumpkin pies for young baby boomers. Some pumpkin spice variations made by other brands include cloves, which in my opinion is the most magical of them all. To me, these spices gave an ancient, elegant earthiness to pumpkin.

Even more amazing, each spice on its own has a completely different flavor. In their combination, they achieve a higher level of existence: The Pumpkin Spice.

Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

The Dawn of the PSL

During the 2002 holiday season, Starbucks cooked up a new line of holiday drinks in its “Liquid Lab.” Eager to continue their success, flavor developers met the following January and experimented with a pumpkin-infused espresso drink. They indulged in pumpkin pie, alternating between bites of the pie and sips of espresso to find the best combination of flavors. (Sounds like a party.) The core components of pumpkin pie spice, including cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, began key ingredients in the new recipe. However, they struggled to find a way to include real pumpkin.

Ultimately, they selected a recipe with zero percent pumpkin, although the 2015 syrup recipe did see a bit of pumpkin puree in the mix, thanks to complaints by the Food Babe (her single contribution to the food industry). With the fall 2003 launch, PSLs exceeded expectations and Starbucks’ suppliers struggled to keep up with demand. The Pumpkin Spice revolution had begun.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Pumpkin Spice Everything

Every year, I know when fall has arrived — despite the 90-degree Florida heat — when the pumpkin spice products arrive in stores. Trader Joe’s seems particularly enthusiastic. Some people think it’s excessive, and to be fair, I feel like we’re pretty close to having abominations like pumpkin spice pickles on the market. I won’t begrudge anyone who wants pumpkin spice potato chips or beer, but let’s face it, some things, like salsa, pasta sauce, soup, and anything that typically has tomatoes and other fruits-disguised-as-vegetables, better lend themselves to being pumpkin-ified.

To be fair, pumpkin is really good for you — and your pets! — as it’s high in Vitamins A, B2, C, and E, plus fairly high in potassium and iron. The problem is that most pumpkin spice products are just that: all pumpkin spice, no pumpkin.

Still, the more I think about the decided lack of pumpkin-ness in most pumpkin-spice products (despite the nominal amount in PSLs), the more I realize that pumpkin probably would be a little weird in coffee. In fact, pumpkin in anything is kind of weird. It’s a rather bland, vaguely bitter fruit. The only reason we love pumpkin pie is for the spice.

Still, pumpkin spice is ultimately a means of getting into the fall spirit, and in a time of increased strife and paranoia, this small indulgence might be one of the few things keeping us sane. Appreciating ancient spices is hardly something to be ashamed of. Go ahead, fill up that Trader Joe’s cart.

As for that first PSL…I drank the whole damn thing and enjoyed every drop.

Before you go…

Enjoyed this article? Want more of my food and drink articles, as well as exclusive content + writing tips? Sign up for my mailing list!

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store