How pumpkin pie spice was a recipe for changing world history

Versie Dortch

It’s pumpkin spice’s world. You’re just living in it.

Every year, the enemies of pumpkin spice declare that the annual autumn madness must be near its end. But with each year, the fever for cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon only intensifies. 

Kit Kats and Twinkies now come in pumpkin spice form. Somehow, pumpkin spice ramen exists, and so does pumpkin spice seltzer made by Bud Lite. Should you feel the need to bathe in it, there’s pumpkin spice hand soap. Pumpkin spice scented masks stand ready to fill your pandemic with fall flavor.

On one hand, “pumpkin pie spice” is relatively new. Spice company McCormick pinned the term in 1934 to a mix of flavors known by British and American bakers for centuries. The omnipresent Starbucks pumpkin spice latte didn’t kick off until 2003. 

But the history of pumpkin spice goes much deeper, and it is far from basic. The spice blend is an enduring remnant of a globe-spanning and often violent history: a European lust for Asian spice that would remake the world.

Pumpkin Spice Latte. Cup of Latte with Seasonal Autumn Spices, Cookies and Fall Decor. Traditional Coffee Drink for Autumn Holidays.

Though the PSL is often used as a stand-in for stereotypes about a certain kind of white people — lovers of Hallmark movies and cable-knit sweaters — its blend of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and ginger is much closer to something you’d find in Asian cuisines.

“In a way, you can say PSL is analogic to other spice blends elsewhere, be it Chinese five spice or the Bengali panch phoron,” wrote New York University Food Studies professor Krishnendu Ray in response to inquiries.

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