Love It Or Hate It, You Cannot Escape The Prominence Of Pumpkin Spice

By: Victoria Kerins, Follow South Jersey Intern

SOUTH JERSEY — As the nights grow colder and the air begins to feel crisp, the turning of leaves is not the only telltale sign that fall is approaching. The return of pumpkin spice also signifies a change in season, producing distinct, autumnal notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, and evoking nostalgic recollections of hayrides, corn mazes, and scarecrows. 

Lining the shelves of grocery stores, coffee shops, and retail outlets alike, pumpkin spice has long been a staple throughout the latter part of September and the entirety of October and November. This signature spice blend has become so popular, in fact, that it has been duly crowned the official trademark of the harvest season, inextricably associated with the legendary Pumpkin Spice Latte from the coffee-chain giant, Starbucks, which reportedly sells upwards of 20 million pumpkin spice lattes annually, according to ABC7 Chicago.

“When you think of fall, you think of pumpkin spice – specifically the pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks,” notes Charlotte D. “The actual taste/smell brings nostalgia of fall. Pumpkin spice is a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other ‘warm’ spices, so it is absolutely not fall without it!” 

Nearly as renowned as pumpkin spice itself, the decades-long debate over the popularity of pumpkin spice also remains a prominent (and passionate) topic of conversation throughout the season among many individuals. While some might argue that the season is not complete without pumpkin spice, others assert that it has simply become an overrated and underwhelming trend which has gained popularity purely because of widespread attention generated from celebrities and influencers on social media, who have been shown to promote the blend in their posts. 

Those who support pumpkin spice often associate it with a nostalgic and romanticized vision of the perfect fall day – foliage decorated with hues of gold, red, orange, and yellow; the smell of cinnamon emanating from bakeries and kitchens, and warm apple cider in a fall-themed mug; trips to the pumpkin patch, farmer’s markets, quaint coffee shops; spending quality time with family; and early nights curled up by the fire watching Hocus Pocus or Practical Magic. 

Alexa L., an avid supporter of pumpkin spice, notes the sentimental connection that she feels to the fragrant and alluring blend. “I like pumpkin spice if it is done the right way,” Alexa says. “I’ve always liked it since I was little. Actually, I personally love it.” 

“Fall comes to mind when I think of pumpkin spice, which has always been my favorite time of the year!” continues Alexa. “I love pumpkin spice muffins and bread. I also like pumpkin spice ice cream and coffee if the coffee is made right. My favorite recipes would be pumpkin pie, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pancakes, and pumpkin bread. I also love pumpkin spice gnocchis with a brown butter sugar sauce and pumpkin soup!” 

For Alexa, although she doesn’t agree that pumpkin spice alone defines fall, she does believe that it is an essential part of the fall season, and notes that it “adds a certain, unmistakable, and indispensable aura to the season, and it simply cannot be fall without pumpkin spice!”

Avina S. adds that “personally, I feel that pumpkin spice adds a splendid flavor to the fall season. Whenever I picture the leaves changing color, the smell of pumpkin spice follows suit.” 

However, Avina is also careful to note that “I feel as though pumpkin spice is on the long list of things that wipes all facets of simplicity away. Being someone who loves flavor and adding spice to my life, it is easy to get caught up in materialistic additions such as pumpkin spice. However, I think it’s important to remember that things like hot chocolate or pancakes don’t need external flavoring to accent the flavors they already exhibit because their beauty comes in its simplest form.” 

As such, her liking of pumpkin spice tends to be situational, and only when it can enhance, and not distract from, certain things, such as hot chocolate and pancakes, which, in their simplest form, have already been perfected and do not need to be “spiced up.” 

But, as she reiterates, “pumpkin spice is symbolic of autumn. Although some things might not require the addition of pumpkin spice to accent their flavors, it is absolutely a defining feature of the fall season, and it is hard to picture it without it – how can you have fall without a pumpkin spice latte?!” 

In contrast, there is also a large group of individuals who remain averse to pumpkin spice. Sara F. associates pumpkin spice with unnecessary trends and capitalism. 

“I’m not a big fan of pumpkin, let alone buying into unnecessary trends,” Sara explains. “Therefore, I’m not a fan of pumpkin spice. 

“It can definitely be fall without pumpkin spice,” Sara continues. “Fall is a season and you can appreciate nature without buying into capitalism.” 

Charlotte D., although a fan, herself, of pumpkin spice as a part of the fall season, is not necessarily a proponent of it in all things, especially in coffee from chains such as Starbucks, due to its hefty price tag. 

“Pumpkin spice has been around for decades in America,” Charlotte D. continues. “When Starbucks introduced the PSL, I was in high school. I couldn’t understand the obsession of something that expensive. I am also not a coffee drinker, so I still don’t understand. I do love all the fall things, so maybe they love it for the excitement that fall brings. I was shocked that every fast food place I was in while in Canada offered their own version of pumpkin spice coffees, as well. Not sure why that surprised me, but it did!” 

However, what largely goes unrecognized is the unique and intriguing history of the notable spice blend, which may have originated over 3,000 years ago. It is thought that nutmeg – an essential component of the pumpkin spice blend – might actually have been used for 2,000 years longer than anticipated. 

“…researchers have discovered that humans have been using nutmeg as food for 2,000 years longer than previously thought. On Pulau Ay, one of the Banda Islands in Indonesia, archaeologists found ancient nutmeg residue on ceramic pottery shards that they estimate to be 3,500 years old,” writes Becky Little, a Washington D.C. based journalist for HISTORY. “Piecing together the history of nutmeg can help frame how the global spice trade evolved later on. Thousands of years after people in Pulau Ay mixed nutmeg in their pots, this and other spices became extremely valuable commodities that people all over the world used in food and medicine. Asia sold spices to the Middle East and North Africa. From there, they trickled into spice-starved Europe.” 

The origin of pumpkin spice can also be traced back to the Dutch East India Company and the Spice Islands. 

“Most spices in today’s blend – cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace, cloves – are native to Southeast Asian islands. Some could be found exclusively on a few island groups that are now part of Indonesia. Known as the Spice Islands, their location was a closely guarded secret,” writes Dan Nosowitz, a writer for Better Homes and Gardens Magazine. “The Dutch took control of the Spice Islands in the early 17th century. Those islands became integral to the success of the Dutch East India Company and the spread of those spices. Access to the spices inspired the Dutch to create blends such as speculaaskruiden, which is similar to pumpkin spice but also has cardamom and sometimes white pepper. The popularity of speculaaskruiden in Netherland desserts led to the spices moving across borders.” 

As such, the history of pumpkin spice began well before its introduction to mainstream culture via the PSL. In fact, its history can be traced back almost 3,500 years, defining how the global spice trade evolved, and serving as an integral component in the success of the Dutch East India Company. 

Even more interesting are the endless possibilities for which pumpkin spice can be used. Of course, we all know of the traditional pumpkin pie, pumpkin muffins, PSL, cookies, and cakes. But, pumpkin spice can actually be used in much more! There are pumpkin martinis, pumpkin gnocchi, dog treats, beer, and popcorn. According to Delish, pumpkin spice has even found its way into products like spam, ramen, hummus, Pringles, Pop Rocks, salsa, water, fish seasoning, spaghetti sauce, cough drops, almonds, kool aid, twinkies, butter, and baking chips. And, according to Buzzfeed, pumpkin spice is used in sausage, gouda, salmon, poppers, peanut butter, and even pumpkin spice hot chocolate!

Although we may associate pumpkin spice with the PSL, its reach, influence, and history extend far beyond Starbuck’s signature fall beverage. A source of intense debate, rich history, and unique inspiration, pumpkin spice is not only a defining feature of the fall season, but a riveting point of conversation and topic of discourse.

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