I know what you’re thinking: Not another pumpkin spice article; we know it’s almost Christmas!
But stay with me here! Scrolling through the metropolis of the internet, skimming past all of the delicious fall recipes that come with the season, I saw a comment under a recipe that said, “Why pumpkin?” and it stopped me in my tracks. I had never considered, “Why pumpkin?” Like most people, I have always just accepted and fully embraced that all things pumpkin coincide beautifully with the changing leaves and cooling weather. Now I was curious.
I’m no historian, but it seems America’s relationship with pumpkins really did start with Pilgrims and Native Americans. Pumpkins were a food source for some Native American tribes and became an extremely important food source for Pilgrims during the winter months. Images of Puritan women in bonnets and aprons toting around pumpkin pies, however, are not historically accurate. Pilgrims would cut the tops off of pumpkins, scoop out the seeds and fill the cavities with cream, honey, eggs and spices (please note the use of spices here). They would then put the pumpkin tops back on and bury the gourds in hot ashes. Once cooked, they served the contents it as a custard dish.
Why does the tradition continue? It is likely a love of comfort food and nostalgia. As pumpkin became a staple in childhood fall feasts, we created a longing for the idyllic and simplistic farm-and-family life it represents. It is human nature to crave rituals, and seasonal rituals passed on from childhood are often associated with happiness, releasing dopamine and serotonin to our brains when we reminisce. It’s our need for this nostalgic fix that led big businesses to start listening and marketing. Most pumpkin spice products do not even contain any pumpkin or pumpkin puree; it is just the spices associated with flavoring the pumpkin that we remember.
One of the earliest references to a blend of pumpkin spice is a recipe from The Washington Post in 1936. In the 1950s, when McCormick began bundling common spices together, pumpkin pie spice became the go-to seasoning for those of us who are too lazy to mix it together ourselves. Thanks, McCormick.
Today, pumpkin spice is commonplace. Every fall, we expect our lattes and alcoholic beverages to shift into this seasonal flavor. But this year, pumpkin spice has expanded into an entirely new phenomenon. It wasn’t enough for consumers to have flavored beverages and desserts; we now have pumpkin spice in all areas of the market. The popularity almost transcends nostalgia and basic trends, ballooning into a pumpkin spice takeover that defies reason. With pumpkin spice sneakers, makeup highlighters, pizza and sushi, we really have to wonder whether we should stop calling this a trend and begin accepting it as a seasonal staple. Intelligent entrepreneurs and marketers will still do well to capitalize on, and market their products around, the seasonal flavor, even if the scent of the spice and an orange tint are all they add to their products.