Pumpkin. Spice. Are there any other two words in the English language whose union is capable of conjuring such a rich sense of coziness? Even before summer has officially thrown in the beach towel, the mere utterance of the phrase immediately makes the air feel cooler; makes one start to daydream of vest-clad autumn afternoons spent traipsing through a technicolor wood, warm beverage in hand, breathing deeply of air so crisp it nearly crackles.
Or maybe your version of cozy is more hearth-centric, the indoor air heavily perfumed with baked goods and perhaps a roaring fire.
In either case: pumpkin spice. Raise your hand if you subconsciously reached for a soft blanket just now.
So, what it is about pumpkin spice that produces so strong an emotional/visceral reaction and has become synonymous with all that is good between September and December? Was it originally conceived by some mystical sorcerer? Are there alchemical principles involved that somehow trigger the very heart of the human condition? Or is it that cinnamon plus anything just always tastes super dope?
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To get to the bottom of this, let’s take a look at what actually comprises pumpkin spice, how it is used, and explore some theories on the potential scientific reasons behind our seemingly insatiable, seasonal longing for it.
What’s in Pumpkin Spice?
Depending on what brand of pumpkin spice you are loyal to, whether Trader Joe’s, McCormick’s, any of the easy DIY pumpkin spice recipes available, or merely that you can’t get through the day without the supreme PSL, your pumpkin spice mix is likely to have a majority of cinnamon, with lesser parts nutmeg and ginger.
Trader Joe's Pumpkin Pie Spice, $8.88 on Amazon
TJ's adds lemon peel, cloves, and cardamom to the classic blend of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
Other spices may include cloves, allspice, cardamom, and mace, and non-spice components may include lemon zest, salt, or sugar. These latter ingredients serve more as megaphones to amplify the flavors of the former, so let’s dig into the top three spices themselves and what makes them cohere so spectacularly.
The thing that makes cinnamon taste and smell like cinnamon is its essential oil, cinnamaldehyde, which, interestingly enough, has an alternative use as a corrosion inhibitor for metals. Perhaps there’s something to this—on some level it does actually make us feel galvanized against the coming of winter.
It’s also the leader of the pumpkin spice pack, both in terms of volume—it is more heavily used in the mix than the rest, and also in terms of volume—it has the loudest taste in flavor science terminology, coming together with a hint of smoke and natural sweetness.
Ginger comes from the family that also gives us turmeric, so it’s no surprise that its myriad purposes also include the medicinal. So where cinnamon may shield us, ginger can heal us. It’s no wonder we start to crave it at the onset of flu season. Its flavor is the most actually spicy among the components here, lending a slightly tart and citrusy sensation that is also genuinely warming. Just add cool air for balance.
Nutmeg is found within the fruit of a particular species of evergreen tree, so it follows that we are drawn to it during months when other trees go bare. Its flavor has a woodsy florality to it, with a pinch of pepper.
The result of these three together is a spice blend that has a roundness and completeness of flavor, and also of function: where cinnamon is a bark and ginger is a root, nutmeg is a seed pod—a veritable circle of life where plant-based foodstuffs are concerned.
When Was Pumpkin Spice Invented?
Pumpkin-based baked goods might be the favorite application of this trinity of flavors for many of us, and while we have definitely frenzied it into a $500 million per year industry, Americans definitely didn’t invent the spice blend.
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The first known reference to a pumpkin recipe with this style of seasoning is from the late 1700s. The spices themselves would have been being cultivated in hot weather climates such as Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Caribbean for millennia before, where similar blends are more commonly found in savory dishes such as curries and jerk seasoning.
Other than pumpkin spice, these kinds of extremely aromatic spice blends aren’t found in many American comfort dishes, so perhaps that’s why we love pumpkin spice so much. It’s the olfactory sensation here that gives it an almost heady feeling, triggering memories of seasons past. In short, it is the most powerful smell of comfort of anything that exists in the American culinary catalogue.
Check out all the best of pumpkins on Chowhound.
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