You see, pumpkin spice is, at its essence, a marketing creation.
First off, it’s not a spice in and of itself like cinnamon or nutmeg or ginger or the oddly named allspice.
No, pumpkin spice – which McCormick first brought to store shelves with the name Pumpkin Pie Spice in either the mid-1930s or the mid-1950s, depending on which Internet source you believe – is a blend of, well, cinnamon and nutmeg and ginger and the oddly named allspice.
(McCormick’s product also has a 5th ingredient meant to extend shelf life and some pumpkin spice blends include a different 5th ingredient – a smidgen of the extremely pungent clove.)
So why did McCormick bring us Pumpkin Pie Spice when all its ingredients already existed separately and were generally a staple (except maybe cloves) in every mid-20th Century housewife’s pantry?
Because, as America was figuring out during the 1950s, putting it all together for us made life easier. Remember the TV dinner? That’s a ’50s product too.
But there’s a bigger reason for putting together a spice blend for our pumpkin pie.
Pumpkin by itself is bland.
Don’t believe it? Try a spoon- or fork-full without anything added. Make sure you do it with a real pumpkin, not the canned stuff because if you check the label on the back of your Libby’s can, you’ll find the 3rd ingredient – after pumpkin and water – is sugar. Followed by salt and pepper.
So Libby’s has known since it began canning the stuff that this vegetable we have come to treat like a fruit needs to add sugar to begin to taste better.
Then, when you stir in what culinary experts call “warm” flavors like cinnamon and nutmeg and ginger and allspice, pumpkin gets pretty darned good.
Especially if you start with the right pumpkins.
You know those big, round orange monsters that you see at so many produce stands and farms this time of year? The ones that are great for carving into jack-o-lanterns? Forget about them. They’re the blandest of the bland.
Instead, look for a pie pumpkin (they’re small). Or, if you’re a foodie, find a Cushaw pumpkin, and go to town with ’em.
Back to our tale …
Pumpkin spice didn’t make much of an impact beyond pumpkin pie or an occasional pumpkin donut until about 15 years ago when Starbucks was doing everything it could to take over the American taste-cultural landscape and commissioned one of its executives – a basketball-playing economist and MBA from Stanford, Peter Dukes – to develop a special edition espresso for fall.
Enter the Pumpkin Spice Latte, or as the most status-chasing Starbucks fans call it, the PSL.
The taste clicked, sales bumped up noticeably and the vente vendor kept trotting PSL out each year, to the point that this year the fall favorite was actually steaming past lips in late August, which is decidedly summer.
If Starbucks knocked a home run with PSL, other vendors could not be far behind with their pumpkin-spiced everything to grab some more bucks off us.
Some are easy to understand. Any baked goods could be pumpkin spiced (check the recipes in Homespun this week). If we love pumpkin pie, why not pumpkin bread or donuts or snack cakes?
Some are a bit more of a stretch. Pumpkin spice pretzels, anyone? Or Pumpkin Spice popcorn? Or Pumpkin Spice coffee creamer? That creamer can let you get close to your own cut-rate, home-stirred PSL.
Then there are the goods that are a stretch too far. CNN’s website has a snarky list of some. You might think pumpkin spice adds something worthwhile to your lip balm (courtesy of Burt’s Bees), but does it really?
Pumpkin spice beard oil takes the head scratching a bit farther and pumpkin spice dish soap has to be all about the scent.
Your understanding that marketers have run amok will be complete when you see the can of – we can’t make this up – pumpkin spice Spam.
Which brings us to our final, sordid little revelation about pumpkin spice anything in 2019.
Some of those products skip the pumpkin. It’s all about the spice combination. Go ahead, check the ingredient list.
In the end, it’s back to the beginning when McCormick created this combination of spices to add flavor to the pumpkin pie.
It turns out you don’t need the pumpkin at all. The spices have become enough, and “pumpkin spice” is shorter to say and evokes an image so much better than “cinnamon-nutmeg-ginger-allspice-(and-maybe-clove)” could ever be and you don’t have to explain that allspice isn’t actually all spices, but a flavor of its own.
Enjoy your latte.