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From Islands to Lattes: Tracing the Origins of Pumpkin Spice (From Deep Routes)

By Milan Poland, a summary of a piece by Deep Routes:

Autumn has always been known to bring the start of cooler fall weather, the changing colors of leaves, and the perfect season for apple picking. But it also gears up excitement for all of the different fall-themed drinks flavored with apple or pumpkin, including the infamous pumpkin spice. Whether it's in lattes or cold brew, pumpkin spice has taken the world by storm since the initial release of the pumpkin spice latte in 2003. By now, the obsession has expanded to products beyond coffee such as cookies, cream cheese, and even a dessert hummus. But while this trend seems fairly modern, spice blends, like pumpkin spice, have a history of over 3,500 years. Although it wasn’t used in coffee and other fall beverages, pumpkin spice goes all the way back to the history of European colonialism.

Pumpkin spice first came to be in the Moluccas or Maluku Islands, located in northeast Indonesia. Nicknamed the Spice Islands, they were the best sources of spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and mace until the 1700s. Before the Spice Islands were exploited by European colonialism, these islands mainly traded with the Middle East and North Africa in the 1300s. Their use of Indonesian sailors to trade spices allowed the location of the islands to stay a secret for years. However, this secret was not kept long as the Portuguese took over the spice trade in 1512 but later succumbed to the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century which dominated the spice trade until the late 18th century. With the Spice Islands until Dutch control, the spice trade became integral to the success of the Dutch East India Company. Access to these spices even inspired the Dutch to create their own blend of spices called speculaaskruiden. Roughly translated to “gingerbread spices”, this mixture of spices was very similar to pumpkin spice with the addition of cardamom and white pepper. The popularity of speculaaskruiden, especially its use in desserts in the Netherlands, caused these spices to gain traction all over the world.

Before taking the official name of “pumpkin spice”, this blend of spices had a myriad of uses. These spices first became associated with pumpkins due to the gourds' accessibility as a North and South American crop. As one of the earliest domesticated crops, indigenous people had been using pumpkins in savory recipes that were often accompanied by chilies. But it wasn’t until the Europeans started to make pumpkin pie that it became used in sweeter recipes as well. As the idea for pumpkin pie spreads across Europe, so does the blend of spices. In 1675 a British recipe for “pumpion pye” calls for cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper. It later appears in 1791 as a blend of spices called “mixed spices” in a cookbook titled The Practice of Cookery. Written by Scottish author Mrs. Frazer, her blend of spices included nutmeg, clove, and Jamaica Pepper (allspice). Mrs. Frazer recommended her spices on more savory dishes such as fried flounder or mutton chops. Pumpkin spice makes a reappearance on the confectionary side in 1796 in Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery. Her recipe for “pompkin pye” contained a mixture of mace, nutmeg, and ginger. Despite its popularity in cookbooks, this blend of spices was officially branded as pumpkin spice until McCormick released a standardized blend in 1934. While it has yet to take off in savory dishes, pumpkin spice has become not only an indicator to take out a light jacket for fall weather but a reminder of Maluku Island history.

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