The Rise and Fall of Pumpkin Spice

There's a pumpkin spice backlash this year. Both Anthony Bourdain and Martha Stewart have been quoted on the matter. “Who’s eating this stuff?” Bourdain asked derisively — and one would assume rhetorically — last year. He suggested the existence of a “vast demographic of pumpkin-crazed” lemmings. Stewart weighed in recently along similar lines. And then, NPR’s Marketplace featured a segment predicting “the beginning of the end of pumpkin spice everything.” Pumpkin spice has been on-trend for the better part of the 2000s, so what happened?

The pumpkin spice blend consists typically of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and allspice. It’s usually added to coffee drinks in syrup form. The first recorded recipe for pumpkin pie in the United States is from 1796, in American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. She uses only nutmeg and ginger but the current blend appears to have become the accepted standard by the 1930s. McCormick began selling a pre-blended “Pumpkin Spice Mix” in the 1950s. Starbucks introduced its first version of the pumpkin spice latte to the nation in 2004, after spending at least a year in development, although it seems that independent coffee shops must have been experimenting with the flavor already in the 1990s, when flavored lattes featuring hazelnut or caramel and pumpkin pie spices were starting to trend. Skipping ahead to the present, we find such permutations as pumpkin cereal or pancake mix common, as well as ice cream, beer and cocktails.

The pumpkin spice latte, or PSL, ideally is a representation of autumn and the harvest season, a thing from which city dwellers — 80 percent of Americans — are increasingly disconnected. While the pumpkin has long been a symbol of the fall holidays in America, it seems that pumpkin spice (which, of course, is the mix of spices usually used in pumpkin pie, rather than anything pumpkin-based) emerged as a stand-in for the pumpkin, the latte becoming its most prevalent vehicle.

Cindy Ott, associate professor of history at the University of Delaware, writes about the historical importance of the pumpkin in American life in her 2013 book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. Ott traces the history of the squash from a Native American staple to its current association as a mascot for the holidays of fall. She says that pumpkin pie, jack o'lanterns and even the pumpkin-shaped cookie appeal to an American nostalgia and reverence for the agrarian lifestyle.

Her book doesn’t delve into the PSL phenomenon, which she says hadn’t yet blown up to fever-pitch levels when she was writing it (the hashtag #psl apparently was created in 2012). But it’s in line with her narrative of the characterization of the pumpkin today, in which she says, “The meaning becomes more important than the meat.” More recently she has noted, “There’s no logical reason to put pumpkin in a cup of coffee.” There is also no logical reason for such polarization over a simple beverage. Ott suggests that this indicates there is something deeper going on here.

According to Starbucks, its pumpkin spice latte in its current iteration contains a small amount of pumpkin puree. If you look beneath its crown of spice-flecked whipped cream, there is a warm orange tint to the milk-infused espresso, more pronounced around the edges. There is a hint of pumpkin flavor, but mostly it is creamy and sweet, with a lot of spice flavor. The spice sensations tend to accumulate — by the time you are halfway into the drink, they predominate. Flavors of either pumpkin or coffee are not a primary feature.

Maybe the disparagers of PSL are just attracted to its virality, but why did it blow up anyway? It’s easy to diss pumpkin spice, perhaps trickier to find out where the seeds were sown.

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