‘Tis the season for Thanksgiving preparations, falling leaves, and the inevitable storm across the United States about whether pumpkin spice lattes are basic or, secretly, actually kinda good.
The cultural force of pumpkin spice in coffee has been substantial; as a symbol of all kinds of sickly-sweet Western excess, it’s been the subject of think pieces ever since it arrived in Starbucks in the mid-90s, and has sparked plenty of discussion about why we love it so much. Spiced pumpkins, and the particular combination of spices that immediately cues “autumn” when we smell it, has a long and kind of bizarre history, and the Starbucks confection is the least of it.
Spiced coffee had been a part of Turkish tradition for centuries, and lightly spiced masala chai has been popular since the British exported it from India in the 1830s. But everybody from medieval cooks to colonial housewives has had a hand in the modern product that invades Instagram every September, and it’s had rather a complex reinvention along the way, from symbol of the super-rich, to medicinal aid for flatulence, to sign of colonial poverty. As for whether they’re a delightful treat or a sign that America’s culinary tastebuds are horrendously unbalanced, well, the jury is out.
Medieval Period: Pumpkin Spice As Medicine
The first people to combine the spices we smell everywhere the second autumn hits may have been medieval Europeans. They were certainly the most enthusiastic about them. At that time, spices, from cinnamon to cloves, were deemed signals of status as they were all imported at great expense, and often ended up in sauces; one, called Sauce Of The Lords, demonstrates the high rank of the people who got to eat them. But nobles were very inclined to spike their drinks with them too.
Hippocras, a spiced wine variant, was enormously popular in some European courts from the Middle Ages onwards. It was spiced with a combination of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and a now-archaic spice known as bird of paradise. Like today’s mulled wine, it was often served warm, so in its own way it was perhaps an alcoholic precedent of pumpkin spice coffee — but it was also deemed to be medicinal, which isn’t usually a term people generally use for today’s lattes.
Spiced hippocras, when prepared properly, was recorded in the treatise of Arnoldus of Villanova, the 13th century doctor to a succession of French kings and popes, as an aid to flatulence, the heart, coughs, and fertility in women. (Women who were infertile were often thought to be too “cold,” and hippocras’ warming effects were thought to correct the problem — obviously, none of this would stand up in a doctor’s office today.) Hippocras was also thought to be a good, soothing way to administer medicines; it comes up in early modern midwifing books as a method of helping women in labor ingest potions to aid the birthing process.
Gourds as a family were known to cooks of the period, but pumpkin itself remained unknown to Europeans until the Spanish brought it back from their explorations of the Americas — to quite a lot of suspicion. However, squashes and the like weren’t exactly seen as particularly good for you, on the contrary with today: a medieval book of medicine tells readers that eating them might cause stomach issues.
1600s: The Birth Of Sweet, Spiced Pumpkins
The first introduction of recognizably modern “autumnal” spices to pumpkins seems to have happened in the 1600s, when cooks across the colonial U.S. took a closer look at the vegetable, and realized that there were dessert possibilities. Pumpkin cake, with cooked pumpkin mixed with almonds and sprinkled with sugar, was invented in the 1650s in France, and a recipe from the colonies in the 1670s involves boiling pumpkin and then mashing it with spices and butter to make a side dish. Cooked pumpkin had already popped up in bread, but the crucial point came when, as cookbooks of the late 1600s tell us, there was a trend for cooking pumpkins whole and then filling them with a kind of pumpkin-flesh custard, like a pie without the pie crust. (If this sounds disgusting, it’s because it probably was.)
1770s-1800s: Pumpkin Beer
The first pumpkin beverage on record in colonial times was actually heavily alcoholic: pumpkin beers and ales. The practice of brewing beer using vegetables and fruits, like blueberries and potatoes, was common among certain sectors of the colonial population, but, in stark contrast to the modern decadence of the pumpkin spice latte, it was usually reserved for poor settlers. Robert Beverley, an early 18th century historian of Virginia, commented that”pompions” [sic] were used in ale by “the poor sort”, along with molasses and bran. Pumpkins were available abundantly, and people with few options — and very poor quality drinking water — took the opportunity to brew them into alcohol at every opportunity.
Pumpkin ales fell out of favor in the 1900s, but nowadays, they’re back with a vengeance. You can still find pumpkin ales at breweries across the U.S. (Paste Magazine bemoaned the popularity of the brew in 2014, noting that “it’s the defining “seasonal” of the American craft beer market”) — but they may not realize that they’re dipping into a tradition that was pretty plebeian. And yes, they’re often spiced.
1950s: The Birth Of Pre-Packaged Spices
Pumpkin spice in its modern form came about because of the vogue of prepackaging in the 1950s. In the era of Spam and the washing machine, companies focused heavily on helping women (who bore most or all of the domestic burden) with labor-saving devices and techniques. Instead of having to make their own spice mix, housewives were marketed “pumpkin spice” pre-mixed combinations, which were sold by McCormick Spices in supermarkets with the intent of mixing in with pumpkin pie mix. This spice mix contains cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves — exactly the combination used in a pumpkin spice latte.
This marketing history is why nobody blinks at the fact that the Starbucks product has only very little pumpkin in it, and only since 2015; these spices evoke all things fall even without the gourd-y goodness. The spice combo turned up in coffee in the U.S. in the 1990s, caught the popular imagination, and has been annoying the hell out of hipsters and their cortados ever since. But if someone tries to bother you about the supposed basicness of your PSL, you can remind them that pumpkin spice has, in fact, a very long and complex history.