For Americans, fall has become synonymous with one thing: pumpkin spice. But how did pumpkin spice become so popular? And how did we reach an age where pumpkin seems to be in everything?
The history of pumpkins in American cuisine dates back to before the founding of the country. Native Americans cooked with pumpkins, and colonists adopted their habits. As one Dutch traveler noted in 1655, "The English, who are fond of tasty food, like pumpkins very much and use them also in pies, and know how to make a beverage from them."
More than 350 years later, thanks to advances in industrialization, the pumpkin spice phenomenon is in full swing. The next time you sip a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, grab a handful of pumpkin spice popcorn, or nibble on a pumpkin cookie, think about all the historical trial and error that went into making this autumnal taste trend so ubiquitous.
This early American cookbook, compiled by Amelia Simmons, includes some of the first transcribed recipes for pumpkin baked in crusts. Her recipes for "pompkin" read:
No. 1. One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.
No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.
Pumpkins themselves have been around for millennia, and they were first cultivated in Central America around 5,500 BC. As Europeans colonized what they referred to as the "New World," they crossed paths with this filling but flavorless crop. Aided by Native tribes, they experimented with cooking methods throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. They realized pumpkin suited their taste buds when sweetened and baked in a crust, giving birth to pumpkin pie.
In New England, colonists relied on pumpkin to survive harsh winters, and its pervasiveness gave it a place at the infamous "Thanksgiving" table at Plimoth Plantation where Natives and Pilgrims shared meals.
In the centuries before and after American Cookery was released, both English and French cooks were inventing new pie-making styles with pumpkin. As an example, one French recipe calls for the pumpkin to be prepared like this:
Boil it with good milk, pass it through a straining pan very thick, and mix it with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds; let all be very thin. Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it. After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve.
Before they came into contact with pumpkin, the English spent the Middle Ages perfecting squash pies - and using the same spices that would later be incorporated in their pumpkin pies after they crossed the Atlantic. "You find the cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg combo everywhere up into the 16th century," historian Ken Albaba says. Sugar was often added, too, when available.
These spices are now the staple ingredients for any pumpkin spice flavoring.
Nutmeg was such a hot commodity in 1677 that the Dutch traded Manhattan - yes, that Manhattan - to the British in order to acquire an Indonesian island that was seen as one of the most reliable sources for the spice. This story is important to the evolution of pumpkin spice because, without nutmeg, this beloved seasoning would not exist.
A central component of pumpkin spice, nutmeg has been used by people for at least 2,000 years. During the Middle Ages, nutmeg was so desired in the international spice trade that "at one point in the 1300s, when tariffs were at their highest, a pound of nutmeg in Europe cost seven fattened oxen and was a more valuable commodity than gold."
This sweet and nutty concoction continues to be important, thanks in part to the pumpkin spice phenomenon (though a pound of nutmeg now retails for only $18).
Since pumpkin pie originated in the New England colonies, which is also where the abolitionist movement was born, it makes sense that the dessert made its way into the political and fictional writings of regional authors during the mid-19th century. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the 1827 anti-slavery book Northwood, wrote that "the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche" at a Thanksgiving table in the novel.
Another abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child, ended her famous poem, "The New-England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving Day," with an homage to her favorite pumpkin dish:
Over the river, and through the wood -
Now grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurra for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurra for the pumpkin pie!