In Defense of Pumpkin

Blame it on the Vikings.

Pumpkin with viking hat thumbnail

Autumn is in the air. No, really. If the blistering temperatures aren’t enough to make you feel like you’re sitting inside a campfire, then just look around. Entire grocery store aisles are turning orange with the essential return of … Pumpkin. Spice. Everything.

But listen, Starbucks isn’t to blame. It’s the Vikings.

See, most of these pungent spices we have come to call pumpkin spice—cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, etc.—originate from the Indian subcontinent and the surrounding islands. Viking traders brought these spices from Constantinople, which was the culinary Spice Route between Asian and European trade, back to Scandinavia.

As time went on, Scandinavians traded down into Europe with Germanic tribes, and the spices continued to march into Anglo-Saxon, which would eventually become Norman, territories.

This is where the generic, nebulous “sweet spice” concept came about, the precursor to “mixed spice.” Cinnamon and nutmeg are the core of mixed spice, but today you also see allspice alongside ginger, clove, and maybe coriander, if you’re in the UK.

Now, cross the Atlantic, have a little war, and watch culinary traditions wash ashore with immigration. Mixed spice becomes more prevalent by the late 1700s, and becomes tied with pumpkin in the book American Cookery, the first official American cookbook on record.

And voila, by the 1890s, we have recipes that simply call for “pumpkin pie spice” rather than describing each element of the mixture.

Here’s a fun fact:Cinnamon was not initially present in the American Cookery recipe, even though it’s now the number one component in pumpkin pie spice by a long shot.

This is largely because of … war and politics. In short, cinnamon was super expensive until the 19th century and was also largely controlled by one company for more than 100 years—The Dutch East India Company. And you history buffs might recall that particular company also had strained relations with the US and Great Britain at the time.

Eventually, cinnamon became more affordable with the discovery of cassia, a much cheaper version of Ceylon cinnamon, and thus became a solid part of the historical lineage that we celebrate today as …. the PSL. And pumpkin spice beer, pumpkin spice creamer, pumpkin spice candles. You get the picture.

So why defend pumpkin spice? Because pumpkin spice is history poured into a coffee cup, beer bottle, or pie plate. History good and bad. It’s the story of global cooperation, as well as global warfare. It stretches from India and China and Egypt in 2000 B.C.E. on to the Silk Road and into the legacy of Vikings and onto the table of Edward the Confessor and Richard II and across into the slave trade and the British occupation and into the very foundations of American baking and, now, inside your favorite cup or bottle a few months a year.

So rather than roll your eyes the next time your friend asks you if want a PSL or if you’ve tried the new Dogfish Head Punkin, just say yes and enjoy a taste of history.

Make Your Own Pumpkin Spice

2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon of ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon of ground allspice

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