It’s autumn, so ‘tis the season for everything pumpkin spice: Starbucks’ lattes, baked goods, even pumpkin spice-flavored Cheerios and – heaven help us – Spam. Its warm, spicy flavor and aroma announce,“It’s fall!” for many people and it has become fanatically popular. But as this seasonal flavor appears in more and more foodstuffs (pumpkin spice vodka, anyone?), the question lingers: What is pumpkin spice, exactly?
The first thing to know about pumpkin spice is that there’s not a bit of pumpkin in it. It’s a combination of four or sometimes five spices mixed together, originally as a flavoring for pumpkin pie. Indeed, what we refer to as “pumpkin spice” started life as “pumpkin pie spice,” and has been used in puddings and baked goods for centuries.
The spices are cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and sometimes allspice. A recipe for a “pompkin” pie spice containing ginger, nutmeg and mace is found in an American cookbook from 1796. Pumpkin was a staple food in the kitchens of the first colonizers, introduced to them by Native Americans. The newcomers didn’t overly care for the taste of this unfamiliar squash, but it beat starving, so they adapted it to their British palates by adding spices from Asia and the West Indies.
For centuries cooks hoarded these precious, expensive spices, and ground them by hand. In the early 20th century, as food production became industrialized, companies like McCormick and Company began offering individual ground spices in tins. By the 1930’s they were combining these spices into mixes, including pumpkin pie spice mix. And other than a couple of detours to flavor soups and meats – plus a few visionary coffee roasters in the 1990’s who added the spice to their ground beans – it might have remained in seasonal baked goods obscurity. Until 2003, when an enterprising member of Starbucks’ product design team decided to put it in lattes, add whipped cream, and a $500 million per year niche drink industry was born.
Pumpkin pie spice is still readily available in the supermarket, but it is expensive for the small amount you get. Gathering the individual spices and making it yourself is satisfying and cost-effective, especially if you use a lot. The fresher the spices, the bigger the flavor punch, so check the expiration dates on packaging to be sure the spices haven’t degraded over time. Ground spices taste best when they are less than a year old.