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.
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.
So how did a mash-up of Asian spice become a hallmark of American autumn? To answer that question you have to go back to a time when spices were so prized they were cause for massacres, and funded empires.
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When Asian spice was everything
These days, a German might blanche at an extra-pungent bulb of garlic. But Caucasian food wasn’t always known for its absence of strong seasoning.
Europe used to be a very spicy place. At least, it was if you were rich.
Aromatic cloves, ginger and nutmeg from Asia were considered rare and luxuriant treasures through much of Europe’s history. In the first century, Roman scholar Pliny the Elder tallied the cost of cinnamon as fifteen times the price of silver. In medieval Europe, intense spicing was prized in foods both savory and sweet.
The “original steak sauce” of 14th century Europe, wrote Princeton medieval specialist Jessica Savage, was a cinnamon-ginger-clove sauce called cameline, sometimes augmented “Tournais-style” with nutmeg to make a seasoning mix quite similar to modern pumpkin spice.
During winter months, medieval European physicians prescribed the use of warming spices like ginger, clove and cinnamon to accentuate the “hot” and “humid” qualities of roasted meat.
But the spices were costly to obtain, and Middle Eastern traders closely guarded the secrets of where they procured their cinnamon, pepper, mace, cloves and nutmeg.
So European explorers and opportunists embarked on perilous journeys to India and Indonesia to cut out the middlemen. Christopher Columbus wasn’t trying to reach America: He was looking for a sea route to Asia’s cinnamon and pepper. (Instead, he came back with allspice, an ingredient now used in many pumpkin spice blends.)
For centuries, the European powers warred over access to spices.
The most notorious and tragic chapter, perhaps, was the battle to corner the market in nutmeg, long controlled by the Bandanese people of Indonesia. First the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the English, tried to muscle their way into a nutmeg monopoly, according to historian Vincent Loth.
The residents of the Banda Islands repelled repeated attempts, until finally the Dutch in 1620 embarked with a force of more than 1,900 to massacre the Bandanese. The Bandanese tried to negotiate terms, but were killed or enslaved, and in some accounts the heads of Bandanese leaders were displayed on pikes.
“The main leaders were captured and tried, and 48 of them were beheaded by the able Japanese executioners who had joined the Dutch as mercenaries,” Loth wrote in a 1995 paper. Rather than be captured, many Bandanese reportedly hurled themselves off of cliffs.
By the end of the genocidal campaign, just a thousand of the Banda Islands’ original 15,000 inhabitants remained. After deporting many who survived, the Dutch brought in “shiploads of slaves” to work the islands’ nutmeg plantations, wrote Loth.
The Dutch also needed to dispose of the English, who maintained a claim to a nutmeg-producing island in the Bandas called Run. In 1667, the English agreed to forsake Run in exchange for a little island on the other side the world, known at the time for its abundance of beaver. The island is now called Manhattan.
Historian Giles Milton documented this barter in his book “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg or, the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History.” Milton described the spice trade, in all its naked brutality, as a harbinger of globalization.
“Literally worth their weight in gold, the cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, ginger and pepper spawned a new age of revolutionary economics based on credit, the rise of a rudimentary banking system and ultimately free enterprise,” he wrote.
The decline and rise of pumpkin spice
So how did nutmeg and clove go from being a driving force in modern European history to the province of pies and the PSL?
Success, and snobbery.
As spices became more available in Europe during the 17th century, prices plummeted. For the aristocracy, this was a problem.
“The elites turned away from it as exotic spices such as nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon no longer signaled an exclusive lifestyle,” according to NYU’s Krishnendu Ray. “Spices had become too cheap and ubiquitous to signify social distinction.”
European culinary culture turned instead to accentuating the savory flavors in expensive cuts of meat, or showcasing a bounty of fresh herbs and vegetables.
To put it in terms familiar from both Central Texas brisket and California farm-to-table cookery, the goal became to “really taste the ingredients.” Strong, complementary spices were seen as distractions from pure and lovely meat or seafood.
But this didn’t mean Europe’s love of spice went away entirely. The once-revered aromatic flavors from Asia were retained in cakes and mulled winter drinks. Nutmeg and cloves and cinnamon were passed down as a central part of European baking. The ancient medical belief that “warming spices” aided digestion in winter may have also kept them part of holiday and harvest traditions.
“We do not have a very good theory about why, for instance, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves retained their place in desserts and drinks in the West while slipping out of savories,” Ray admits. “The closest theory is one proffered by the German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch in (food history book) ‘Tastes of Paradise,’ which goes like this: Desserts and sweet aromatic drinks got feminized and infantilized among Western elites, as with chocolate.”
The manly drink prized by European elites was bitter black coffee, according to Ray. And the manly food was meat that tasted like meat.
“Sweetness and aromatic spices got segregated into the taste of social inferiors,” Ray wrote. “That in fact continues even today. Think about sweetness, which in fact is what is really being delivered with a PSL.”
Centuries before the word “basic” was weaponized against female PSL fanatics, a 1682 British book billed as an all-purpose “Guide to the Fairer Sex,” advised the English gentlewoman to spice her “pumpion pie” with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper.
But whatever your feelings about the PSL, there’s nothing universally masculine or feminine about a love of nutmeg. A balanced palate of aromatic spice is the foundation of many world cuisines.
Ray says he expects Americans’ views about nutmeg and cinnamon and clove and ginger will continue to change, as a new generation of urban professionals places higher value on spices from a broad variety of cultures.
“Things are going to be a jumble for a while,” wrote Ray. “…Social change is not a totally controlled process of mastery by the elites. Other tastes survive, waiting to return on a more opportune day.”
Pumpkin spice may have been spurned by snobby European aristocrats, but it was always lying in wait — ready to return to the world it helped create.
Matthew Korfhage is a food and culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @matthewkorfhage. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.