Updated: May 15, 2022
“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”
Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965
Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte has become the modern harbinger of autumn and the change of seasons. Since it was introduced in 2003, nearly a half-billion dollars of pumpkin spice flavored or scented products are sold each year. Perhaps it doesn't extend the consciousness or allow for space travel like the spice in Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel, but the ingredients of pumpkin spice - cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger - have a long, contentious history.
All the spices that comprise pumpkin or pumpkin pie spice blends have been known for centuries. They all originated in Southeast Asia. Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of several trees species within the genus Cinnamomum. Most of these species are native to India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and China. Cinnamon was known throughout the ancient world. The Egyptians used it in embalming mummies, and the Greeks included the spice in offerings at temples. The true source of cinnamon was a closely guarded secret by those in the spice trade, and classical authors believed the spice came from Arabia along with incense and myrrh. Like most spices, it was expensive. Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder, wrote in the 1st century CE that cinnamon cost fifteen times more than silver.
Nutmeg is the reddish-brown seed found within the fruits of the Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree found in the sheltered valleys of the Banda Islands of Indonesia. The seeds are covered by a deep red, fleshy membrane from which mace is derived. On one of the islands, Pulau Ay, archeologists have found pottery shards dating back 3,500 years, with nutmeg residue. The Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures, mention nutmeg, and the spice's medicinal properties were well known in both India and China. Cloves are the dried, unopened buds of an evergreen that is part of the myrtle family, Syzygium caryophyllata. This evergreen grew only on five small volcanic islands known as the Maluka or Moluccas. These islands were close to the Banda in Indonesia, and they would eventually be collectively known as the Spice Islands.
Like nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon were used in traditional Indian and Chinese medicines. This knowledge was eventually transmitted to the Arabs. Muslim physicians believed that illness was a direct result of imbalances within the body. This imbalance could be restored with the proper well-balanced diet of herbs and spices. Nutmeg, clove, and other spices played an essential role in the works of the 9th century CE Arab physician Isaac ibn Amran. His medical texts became part of the foundation of medieval European medicine. The Arabs were also the first to utilize clove and nutmeg in their cuisine. They not only appreciated their medical properties but their fragrance and ability to enhance the flavors of food. Cloves are often mentioned as an ingredient in the earliest Arab cookbook, Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Cookery), written in the 10th century CE.
It is unclear when cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace begin to appear in European cuisine. After the 12th century, European doctors began drawing upon the newly available Arabic and classical Greek medical texts. They based much of their medical practice on Galen's notions of the "humors." The humors were the basic elements of the body - blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. These humors were associated with different elements, seasons, temperments, and qualities. Clove and nutmeg were purported to have "hot" and "humid" qualities. This was thought to counter "cold" qualities and was often used in wintertime meals. Wine spiced with ginger, clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon was a favorite at many European courts throughout the Middle Ages. In Europe, the popularity of using spices grew from the 12th century onward. Medieval cooks used spices on all kinds of food, and they created hundreds of different rich, spicy sauces. Paul Freedman, an expert on medieval gastronomy, suggests that "75% of medieval recipes involves spices."
Spices in Europe were expensive and coupled with their high demand, they were often more costly than gold. Therefore, anyone who could monopolize the trade in spices would become wealthy and, in turn, more powerful. For over a millennium, the spice trade was confined to the islands of Indonesia. The Arab, Chinese, and Indian merchants needed to go through Javanese or Sumatran traders. By the 11th century, Arab and Indian sailors discovered the origins of the spices but kept it a closely guarded secret in fear of competition. Venice, and then Genoa, asserted control over the flow of spices from the Middle East into Europe. The wealth of the Republic of Venice was built upon being the spice supplier to western Europe. The desire to cut out the Venetian and Islamic intermediaries in the spice trade motivated the Spanish and Portuguese to brave the open ocean and find a direct route to the Indies.
After Vasco da Gama's voyage to India, it would be the Portuguese who would take control of the vital spice trade networks of Southeast Asia. The Dutch and the English would soon follow. In 1638, the Dutch and Portuguese went to war over cinnamon, and the Dutch ended up taking control of Sri Lanka and the export of cinnamon. The inhabitants of the Banda Islands held back Dutch attempts to seize control until 1620. The Dutch showed up with far greater numbers and a superior force. The Bandanese capitulated, and the Dutch then commenced a genocidal campaign against the natives. Only 1,000 out of a population of nearly 15,000 survived, and of these, many were transplanted by the Dutch to other places. The Dutch brought in outside slaves and set up a plantation system to harvest nutmeg. Gambling that the future belonged to the spice trade rather than the beaver trade, the Dutch agreed to hand Manhatten Island to the English in exchange for the Banda Island of Pulau Run. The "Spice Islands" would remain a colony of the Netherlands up until the mid-20th century when Indonesia won independence.
It would be the colonial Americans who would bring together these spices and the pumpkin. Domesticated for over 10,000 years, the pumpkin was cultivated across the Americas by Aztecs, Mayans, and the indigenous groups of North America. Settlers to New England quickly added pumpkin to their staple diet. They brewed pumpkin ale, dried pumpkin, and stewed pumpkin as a vegetable. In some cases, they stewed the pumpkin until it could be mashed, then they added butter and spices. Cooks began realizing the dessert possibilities of pumpkin. They created pumpkin cakes, and there was a trend of filling whole pumpkin shells with a custard made from the flesh. In the 18th century, Americans and their English cousins created pies from sliced or fried pumpkin, spices, sugar, and apples between two pastry crusts. By the end of the century, pumpkin pies, in the more modern sense, appeared. In American Cooking (1796), the first cookbook written by an American and published in America, Amelia Simmons provides two recipes for "pompkin pudding." Her pudding, or pie filling, was more like a custard made from stewed pumpkin, eggs, cream, sugar, and molasses. Spices to be added were ginger, nutmeg, mace, and allspice (which was native to the Americas). In the 1820s, Mary Randolph, in her The Virginia Housewife, would suggest adding a glass of brandy. This would be the basic form embraced by Americans through the 19th century and into the 20th century.
The moniker of pumpkin spice is a recent convention begun by the McCormick spice company in the 1930s to market a blend of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger. The intention was to pair the spice blend with another recent innovation - canned pumpkin. The canning industry rapidly expanded at the turn of the 20th century, and it brought canned pumpkins to the shelves of every market. By the 1920's canned pumpkin filling as well as canned cranberries became a seasonal pantry staple in American households. Now cooks didn't need to stew pumpkins all day long, and pumpkin pie evolved to be a familiar dessert at the Thanksgiving table.
Modern marketing has embedded pumpkin spice into the pop-culture consciousness. Pumpkin spice everything is still a popular seasonal favorite, but there are signs of oversaturation, and growth in the market seems to be slowing. I have to admit that I'm not a fan of pumpkin pie, but I do enjoy a good pumpkin ale, porter, or stout.
The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade: Charles Corn
Spice: A History of a Temptation: Jack Turner
A Brief History of Pumpkin Pie in America: Ellen Terrell (Library of Congress)