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Even Colonial Americans Liked Pumpkin Spice

A recipe for pumpkin (or rather, “pompkin”) spice appears in America’s oldest cookbook

Pumpkin spice has become completely divorced from pumpkin pie. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

The leaves are changing. The air is crisp. The days are getting shorter. The Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations are filling stores. It’s decorative gourd season. It’s sweater weather. You know what that means: Pumpkin Spice Everything season.

“Pumpkin spice is a combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger and sometimes actual pumpkin,” writes Jayne Orenstein for The Washington Post. These spices, taken individually, have a long history in Western cooking. Their ubiquitous modern form as pumpkin spice has taken on a life of its own.

Love it or hate it, in North America right now, pumpkin spice is as sure a signifier of autumn as changing leaves or shorter days. The signature pumpkin spice product, the pumpkin spice latte, “is Starbucks’s most popular seasonal drink,” Orenstein writes, and has helped lead an orange-colored, aromatic wave of pumpkin spice products that range from the predictable (Pumpkin Spice Oreos) to the kind of horrifying (pumpkin pasta sauce.) But pumpkin spice is nothing all that new: its American origins stretch back all the way to colonial times.

A recipe for pumpkin (or rather, “pompkin”) spice appears in America’s oldest cookbook—American Cookery, which was written by Amelia Simmons and first published in 1796. It was popular and went through numerous reprints. The 1798 edition contains two recipes for “pompkin” pie filling: one contains mace, nutmeg and ginger while the other contains allspice and ginger. 

It appears that pumpkin spice made its earliest inroad into non-pie foods in 1936, when a recipe for “pumpkin spice cakes” appeared in the Post. According to the Post’s Maura Judkis, who this September bravely spent a week sampling the best and the worst that Big Pumpkin Spice had to offer:

“Pumpkin spice cake is a desirable dessert for a family dinner, and a healthful pick-me-up for children after school,” read a recipe that was eyebrow-raisingly outdated, referring to pumpkin as a food of the “Italian peasantry.” We could find no earlier reference to “pumpkin spice” in a search of historical newspapers.

Unsurprisingly, though, it was in the 1950s when the American piemaker was given the choice to remove the inconvenience of measuring out separate spices with the advent of pre-mixed pumpkin spice. Writes Melissa McEwen for Chicagoist:

...Spice companies like McCormick started bundling common spices used in pumpkin pie as "pumpkin pie spice" in the 1950s and then simply as “pumpkin spice” in the 1960s for people too lazy to measure out their own “Cinnamon, Ginger, Nutmeg, Allspice, And Sulfiting Agents.” Soon enough lazy cooks were using it to flavor all kinds of dishes normally spiced similarly to pumpkin pie, such as a “Cream of Sweet Potato Soup” published in The Orlando Sentinel in 1995.

It also shows up in ads for textiles as a color and in The Santa Fe New Mexican in 1995 in an article about a shop called wildCHASE offering “pumpkin spice” candles. In “Waxing euphoric about a wick-ed obsession,” Liz Stevens of The Times Union in Albany, New York fretted about the flavored candles— “Are we becoming a nation of cinnamon-apple and pumpkin-spice addicts?” Sadly, her worries came true.

The pumpkin spice craze spread to coffee. Then in 2004, the marketers at Starbucks got in on the action, turning a quirky drink devised by indie baristas into a Pumpkin Spice Empire. Fourteen years later, here we are: Pumpkin spice season has become a bigger and bigger piece of fall since the nationwide PSL rollout in 2004, the PSL birthing ceremony that the coffee giant held on Facebook this September was 80 hours long, and you can buy pumpkin spice dog biscuits--a recipe that Simmons certainly didn't include in American Cookery.

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