Pumpkin Spice: How Did We Get Here?

September 28, 2017

The world is more divisive than it’s ever been, and over the past few weeks, it’s been encapsulated entirely by one very specific thing, a thing that arrives every autumn, and speaks to our ripe sense of American pride. It’s a harkening back to an era of simplicity, if you will. Yet, even this sacred institution has been corrupted by a sort of cultural exploitation from various brands and causes across America. And so here we are, with this once beloved and innocent affectation becoming an instigator of squabbles amongst family and friends alike. What are we to do? We’re at a sort of boiling point that begs us all to ask if it’s finally time to end this thing, or if there’s still a possibility we can salvage the beautiful sentiment it originally stood for. Pumpkin spice, what have you done to us?!

It wasn’t always this way, pumpkin spice. Once upon a time, it was a garnish used to remind us of families gathering in the crisp autumn air. Your cousins, nephews, and that estranged aunt’s new boyfriend would all convene for Thanksgiving, the delicious aroma of pumpkin spiced treats accenting your awkward interactions. Over a slice of pumpkin pie, your second cousin, once removed would tell you about the time she saw someone from the third season of “The Bachelor” at a Denny’s in Hollywood. Your little brother, thanks to his incessant antics, would have his pumpkin cookie privileges revoked as punishment. Your vegan-conspiracy-theorist uncle would inevitably bring some strange pumpkin-seed-and-fig loaf that only he would dare consume. Let’s face it: even if you don’t particularly like the taste, smell, or existence of pumpkin, you’ve gotta recognize it as a symbol of family, and the purest interpretation of Thanksgiving. 

And yet, pumpkin spice’s origin is even richer and nobler than an arbitrary tradition appropriated by Midwestern family stereotypes—it’s a fixture of American life with origins that can be traced back to a few decades following our great nation’s founding. In America’s first cookbook by Amelia Simmons, there was a recipe for “pompkin pudding” with ginger, nutmeg, and pumpkin—or, in other words, pumpkin spice. So, it wasn’t just a hearty treat and indulgence meant to remind us of all that we have to be thankful for; it was a source of American pride. In 1796, it was an invention that represented a new beginning for a new nation. No longer would these freedom fighters borrow from their European heritage; instead, they would create their own specialties. Pumpkin pie was about American pride.

In a lot of ways, pumpkin spice represents America as much today as it did in years (OK, centuries) past. If the pumpkin spice of yesteryears stood for an America where people frequented the World’s Fair, where kids were entertained with nothing more than a stick and a hoop, and where women’s bathing suits were made of wool (not that we want anything to do with such things), the 2017 pumpkin spice represents a sort of Worldstar HipHop, Crest Whitestrips, Kid Rock for U.S. Senate, Crocs-and-white-socks version of America. In other words, instead of representing a sacred moment of indulgence with family, pumpkin spice is now a permanent, virtually unavoidable fixture of commercialized American life. Now, that’s not to say that we don’t love a lil’ bit of pumpkin spice from time to time. For all the “basic” jokes, pumpkin spice lattes are undeniably delicious—there’s no argument there. But, how many varieties of pumpkin beer do we really need? Is pumpkin spice-flavored toothpaste really necessary?

Which is why people today tend to either aggressively love or aggressively hate pumpkin spice anything. Usually when the former and latter collide, it results in a simple, “Ugh, you like pumpkin spice?” But sometimes, it’s a major bone of contention. Pumpkin spice-scented soap in the public bathroom may as well be spider-laced soap for a true hater: something to be avoided at all cost. Pumpkin spice-flavored Pringles when you were expecting the pizza-flavored variety is like getting a mouthful of vodka when all you wanted was water. It’s downright traumatizing.

So, where do we go from here? Pumpkin spice has clearly torn this country apart, or at the very least, warped a sacred childhood memory and maybe made you puke in your mouth a little at the idea of pumpkin spice-flavored toothpaste. But, on the scale of things that have torn America apart recently, pumpkin spice comes in pretty low. It’s not worth ignoring, but comparatively, it’s a drop in the pan. So, maybe we turn this unfortunate trend in commercialized culinary behavior into a guinea pig for bridging the national cultural gap. How? With a lot of hard work and a little bit of resilience. Remember: no matter how good that pumpkin spice-scented body wash from Bath & Body Works smells, it’s nothing compared to the smell of Grandma’s pumpkin pie hot out of the oven. What was once sacred can be sacred again—if we as a people put down our foot, and declare that pumpkin spice isn’t here to be exploited, and that American traditionalism isn’t a sales ploy. It’s just up to us to remember that the only way to save the soul of pumpkin spice is to return it to its rightful home at the Thanksgiving table. (End rant.)