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Considering Pumpkin Spice and Seasonal Synesthesia

Most people associate the fall season with flavors, smells, and colors: apple cider, gold and crimson leaves, smoke … and thanks to Starbucks, “pumpkin spice.” A pumpkin spice latte bonanza is sweeping Starbucks coffee shops, and everywhere else a #PSL hashtag exists. The drink’s popularity has spurred on a variety of other pumpkin spice manifestations–including doughnuts, bagels, and pancakes, according to Forbes.

“Flavor trends” aren’t new–we saw recent examples in the “red velvet” and “cronut” fads. But part of pumpkin spice’s popularity seems to stem from its seasonal character: while other flavor trends lose their glamour with time, pumpkin spice has a recurring, seasonal appeal. It disappears from Starbucks’ menu around the Christmas season, and by the time summer again fades into fall, people are hankering for the drink.

The pumpkin spice ingredients—cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice—have always existed in our kitchen. This season’s #PSL craze seems to have awakened notable enthusiasm, but it is by no means an original concoction. While it’s possible that global pumpkin spice domination is new, it could also represent a revival of an old aesthetic pleasure: pumpkin pie has been around for hundreds of years. According to the Kitchen Project, “pumpion” pies and pastries originated in the 16th century. Their website shares an excerpted recipe from The Accomplisht Cook, a 1685 recipe book:

Take a pound of pumpion and slice it, a handful of thyme, a little rosemary, and sweet marjoram stripped off the stalks, chop them small, then take cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and a few cloves all beaten, also ten eggs, and beat them, then mix and beat them all together, with as much sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froise, after it is fried, let it stand till it is cold, then fill your pie with this manner. Take sliced apples sliced thin round ways, and lay a layer of the froise, and a layer of apples with currants betwixt the layers. While your pie is sitted, put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it. When the pie is baked, take six yolks of eggs, some white-wine or verjuyce, and make a caudle of this, but not too thick, but cut up the lid, put it in, and stir them well together whilst the eggs and pumpion be not perceived, and so serve it up.

Note the inclusion of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves–all regular contributors to “pumpkin spice.” An early American version of “pompkin” pie included nutmeg, ginger, molasses, and allspice. Since pumpkin is a fall fruit, such desserts would have been made around harvest time. These spices, so nicely paired with pumpkin, would also become associated with the season. Because other fall and winter desserts like apple pie and gingerbread share many of the same spices, they have earned a unique autumnal appeal.

Perhaps humans (specifically those who experience the fall season and harvest) have always been a tad crazy about pumpkin spice–as well as apple pie, cider, maple syrup, gingerbread, and the whole host of cinnamon/nutmeg/allspice-spiked foods that thread their way through the autumn season. One wonders whether the smoky, crisp fall air whets our appetites for these cozy, sweet flavors–or whether those flavors enhance our enjoyment of the season. Did the pilgrims make “pompkin” pie on that first Thanksgiving? The history of seasonal synesthesia seems to deserve a study of its own. Are people just as crazy about fresh strawberries and mint in the spring?

I must confess that pumpkin spice lattes seem a sad substitution for the spice-laden desserts of kitchens past–that pumpkin pie with flaky crust, the apple cider steaming with richness, rich gingerbread melting in your mouth. But I am, after all, an avid from-scratch baking aficionado (as well as a curmudgeonly conservative), and often denigrate the value of efficiency. A pumpkin spice latte can be procured in five minutes, at little personal disadvantage, only a couple blocks from most corporate offices. Pies and homemade ciders are often costly, time-consuming endeavors.

That said, as you hashtag your #PSLs and satisfy your cinnamon cravings, don’t forget the particular potency of fall flavors and their rich history. As Claudio Rivera noted in an amusing satirical blog post at the Overhead Compartment, “you might pause for a moment before Instagramming that frothy Venti soy latte like a mindless dolt to reflect on the small role that you’re playing in the rich tapestry of history.”

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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