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What is Up With Pumpkin Spice? Posted by on Aug 29, 2019 in Culture

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

If you are learning English and trying to gain knowledge of American culture, then you need to be aware of something which appears throughout the country every year around the beginning of September and lingers into December. That thing is called pumpkin spice. Its popularity, indeed, its hold on much of the American public, may seem unfathomable. Nevertheless, you will encounter it. You may even fall under its sensuous spell, just as it has done to millions of others.

What Is It?

First of all, there’s no pumpkin in pumpkin spice. It is supposed to be a blend of spices that you would find in pumpkin pie. These spices include nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and vanilla. The mix varies, as do the proportions, but those warm and aromatic flavorings should typically be found in anything labeled pumpkin spice. Except, often they’re not.

Because of the tremendous popularity of pumpkin spice flavor in so many products (see below), many companies have been working on creating chemical compounds which mimic the flavor without actually containing any true spice. And while they are all approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (or, the FDA), the agency responsible for regulating food additives, these compounds are all artificial. Most of them are also significantly more potent in both taste and aroma than their natural counterparts.

Commonly, the other additive is an artificial pumpkin color. As I said, no pumpkin fruit is expected to be found in pumpkin spice. Nevertheless, in order to further trick your brain into believing that you are enjoying something from the American Thanksgiving table, most products labeled pumpkin spice are orange. I should also point out that pumpkin pie is never orange – at least it shouldn’t be! Once you’ve cooked your pumpkin pie, it should be a nice amber brown.

Pumpkin Spice Flavored History

The craze began with a seasoning company, McCormack, combining many of the spices into a commercially available mix back in the 1950s. This was, for years, the go-to blend for cooks looking to make pumpkin pies, cakes, and other desserts. Other companies made their own competing blends over the years, maybe adding cloves or even cardamom. These blends were available all year, not just at Thanksgiving, and some adventurous cooks found the mix of spices could be used for all types of seasoning needs. It has been a popular ice cream flavor since at least the 1970s. Then, in 2004, Americans were introduced to Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Pumpkin spice flavored coffee probably dates back about 50 years. I remember serving it at a bakery I worked in in the late ‘80s. But Starbucks made it a craze by offering it for “a limited time” as a seasoning to its foamy, hot cream and sugar concoction. You could only get it for a few weeks every year. Its exclusivity made it much more appealing. Never mind that it tasted much more like a chai than coffee. Then, chief rival Dunkin Donuts (now called, simply, Dunkin) introduced its own coffee blend, along with a pumpkin spice flavored donut. The marketing war was on!

Pumpkin Spiced Everything

I regret to say that we see pumpkin spice flavors in an astonishing, some might say appalling, number of products. In addition to the aforementioned ice cream, coffee, and donuts, it is found in

  • Beer
  • Coffee creamer
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Yogurt
  • Peanuts
  • Chocolate bars
  • Oreo cookies

As odd as some of those may seem, there is at least a little bit of a logical progression from coffee and ice cream to cookies and yogurt. But, things have gotten a little, umm…weird.

You can now buy nutritional protein powder in pumpkin spice flavor.

Put out some pumpkin spice potato chips for your next party!

There are pumpkin spice communion wafers available to congregations across the US.

Americans love spicy chicken wings, right? Sure enough, you can now get pumpkin spice chicken wings!

It’s in hummus, sausages, meatballs and, I’m not kidding, Spam!

That’s right, back in 2017 the makers of Spam, the canned meat product, joked about offering pumpkin spice Spam. Then they got inundated with requests from customers who said that was a terrific idea. So, they have now introduced a product which was originally intended as a spoof on the proliferation of products flavored like a beloved Thanksgiving Day staple.

Please don’t joke about a pumpkin spice salad dressing. You might just see it on a dinner table next year.

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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.