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Pumpkin Spice Spam anybody? We too are given pause at the thought, although rumour has it that it’s better than you might think. We have it on good authority that it carries significant breakfast potential, so ready those waffles. 

Fine, but what’s the deal with this ever-swelling spread of pumpkin spice-centric products hitting our shelves every year that even the good people at Spam ended up feeling the urge to spice up? Running the gamut from cream cheese to air fresheners to dog shampoo to hummus, pumpkin spice everything seems to be here to stay, and not only when the leaves on the trees say so. 

So let’s take a moment and a closer look at why you might find yourself eating a pumpkin spice baloney sandwich for dinner tonight — with a side of pumpkin spice mac ‘n cheese, washed down with pumpkin spice sparkling water, followed by a helping of pumpkin spice Twinkies for dessert. Don’t forget the Marshmallow Pumpkin Latte hand sanitizer before you start. And for God’s sake, put your pumpkin spice face mask back on when you’re done.

Yes, these are all things. Google them. Welcome to the 21st century.   



It’s no secret, spices have been shaking us up collectively since antiquity. Indeed, the very pages of history are redolent of their intoxicating fragrance. We could take a deep dive here and talk about the role of spices in ancient Egyptian mummification and cosmetics. Or the Silk Road, or Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a route by sea to India and beyond. Or subsequent skirmishes over control of the Spice Islands culminating in the Dutch East India Company becoming the most profitable enterprise of all time (eat your hearts out Google and Amazon). We could do ALL that. Or, we could talk about Starbucks.


Sweet Roasted Goodness : The First Pumpkin Dessert

Before we get to the ‘Bucks though, let’s take a short, spice-laden stroll down memory lane. Rewind to early American colonial times, specifically early 17th century New England. After Native Americans introduced the colonists to the ubiquitous pumpkin, it quickly became a crucial staple for the new arrivals, lending itself to a variety of preparations, including dessert. To read more about the fascinating history of the pumpkin, click here.

While Indigenous culinary takes on pumpkin tended to err on the savoury side, the settlers — who would indeed make their fair share of soups and stews — had brought over with them a penchant for sweet things that made pumpkin dessert inevitable from the outset. The English pantry already boasted a variety of spices, including certain pumpkin spice all-stars like nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger, which the colonists used for flavouring as well as food preservation. 

These spices would prove most welcome in certain initial sweet undertakings. As early as 1620, the pilgrims were chopping the top off of pumpkins, hollowing them out, filling them with milk, honey and spices and then slowly roasting them over hot coals. This is the earliest known indication of an attempt at pumpkin pie, one where the pumpkin itself was essentially the original crust. 

Inspired by the Pilgrims’ Version of the Pumpkin Pie

Pumpion Pie, Anyone?

A  few decades later, in 1675, a British recipe for “Pumpion Pie” popped up, calling for cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. Contemporaneously, the Dutch, who had a monopoly over the spice trade, were flavouring their famous speculaas shortcrust biscuits with a decidedly pumpkin spicey blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves, plus the added bonuses of cardamom and white pepper. These and other spice mixes, precursors to the pumpkin spice we know, became increasingly popular, and, by the end of the 18th century they were showing up in certain well known cookbooks of the day like The Practice of Cookery (1791).

Pompkin Pie Recipe Excerpt

In 1796, Amelia Simmons included the first known published recipes for pumpkin pie (“Pompkin” as she called it) in her work American Cookery, considered to be the very first cookbook by an American. The first version called for a combination of ginger, nutmeg and mace while the second combined ginger and allspice. Although some controversy exists about Simmons having lifted a considerable number of her recipes from earlier British ones, this work helped fix the pumpkin pie’s official place in the American culinary tradition.  


The comforting and delectable scent of spice mixes as they relate to pumpkin had been wafting around hearths and hearts for centuries by the time a US company decided to take things to the next level in the 1930’s. By then, pumpkin pie was a repeat player in American households but one still had to do a fair bit of tedious carving and measuring out of individual spices to get ‘er done. 

Things would change definitively in 1934 when US spice purveyor McCormick & Company launched its “pumpkin pie spice” mix, a like-minded response to the Libby’s canned-food company’s 1929 introduction of puréed canned pumpkin. 

Eager pie cooks everywhere could now rejoice as both products were stocked on supermarket shelves across the nation. With an opening of a can and a shaking of another can — later rebranded as “pumpkin spice” and today containing a proprietary blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and delicious sulfiting agents — much of the work was already done.

McCormick & Co. pumpkin spice

A Household Must

It wouldn’t be long before this new quick fix would become a household must and an ingredient in its own right, something implicitly understood as opposed to broken down. By the 1960’s, cookbooks began simply calling for “pumpkin spice” and you knew what you needed to do. 

With this new ease in the seasoning process, people naturally started applying it to more than pumpkin pie. McCormick themselves encouraged a variety of recipes and uses, including just putting it on buttered toast. These early combinations were decidedly tame by today’s ludicrous standards (think pumpkin spice Gouda, and then don’t) but there was already something in the air; it was clear from the get-go that the spice wasn’t going to stop at pie. Now Fast Forward and back to the ‘Bucks.  

PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE PREAMBLE (PSL to those in the know and on a schedule)

Lest we think the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte appeared out of thin whip-creamed air, folks were experimenting with how to pumpkinize their joe for quite some time. Deep down in the 90’s, long before legions of instagrammers and influencers were pumpkin-spice-selfie-ing themselves into skinny-iced-venti oblivion, things were already stirring. 

pumpkin spice coffee

Perhaps the earliest reference to pumpkin spice being paired with coffee came out in 1996 near Tampa, Florida, where Home Roast Coffee were said to be experimenting with an innovative new brew infused with the flavour. Soon after, coffee shops and roasters across the country were dabbling with the comforting if unusual new mix. 

It was a question of time before things started frothing up and, in 2002, Purple Mountain Coffee in Colorado was reported in a local paper to be dealing in a drink dubbed a “pumpkin pie latte”. The time was officially ripe to “Starbucks the trend” so to speak. 


In the spring of 2003, Peter Dukes, product manager and Director of Espresso at Starbucks, is tasked with finding the next big thing: a product in the vein of the largely successful Peppermint Mocha or Eggnog Latte. His team compiles a list of potential flavours and subjects it to some focus group rigour. Pumpkin Spice is one of them and really doesn’t do so well, but Dukes and co. don’t let go.

Hunkering themselves down in a Seattle lab somewhere for some serious R&D, they get to experimenting with varying ratios of actual pumpkin pie to espresso, in a concerted effort to determine optimal flavour balance. When they emerge triumphant, the PSL is born (acronym trademarked by Starbucks in 2013 by the way, so watch what you say) and things are never the same. 


Originally and very briefly dubbed the Fall Harvest Latte (FHL?), the new beverage raised concerns amongst the top brass right away about the coffee potentially playing second fiddle to the pumpkin spice from a flavour standpoint. (The spice blend in question is a combo of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves by the way.) This concern was quickly put to rest by the sheer weight of positive customer response. 

So Where’s the Pumpkin, Jack?

However, another concern that took far longer to resolve was the fact that there was no pumpkin in the pumpkin drink. This is incidentally a criticism one can level against a whole host of pumpkin spice creations out there. Although the product was a record-shattering hit, there was discontent concerning its gourdlessness in the PSL multiverse.  Eventually, even the blogosphere got pretty shook up.

Finally, in 2015, Starbucks decided to throw up their hands and throw down some real squash, aka pumpkin purée. What effect this had on sales is not entirely clear but it brought a little peace to our caffeinated, sugar-smacked souls.


Love it or hate it, with or without the pumpkin, this drink was a game changer, not only in the world of limited-time offers, but for the future of pumpkin spice as we thought we knew it. Yes, Starbucks is doing just fine with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 500 million of the things sold since 2003, but it obviously goes way beyond that. 

Forbes published an article in 2018 entitled “Inside The $600 Million Pumpkin Spice Industrial Complex”, an eye-opening headline that captured the spirit of this phenomenon, one that sees any heartwarming associations with pumpkin pie being left further and further afield with each new creation. See pumpkin spice kitty litter. 

Live Your Spice

Although we at The Hungry Herald may be somewhat bewildered at times by how far things have gone, far be it from us to hate on the pumpkin spice scene. In fact it’s quite the opposite. These days, anything that brings us back to simpler, more wholesome times with a mere sniff or a bite is all gravy with us. Not sure about the kitty litter though.

Hey, if that bowl of pumpkin spice ramen flashes something comforting across your brain and your heart fills up for just a moment with a warming autumnal glow, slurp away. Turns out Pumpkin Spice Spam isn’t such a stretch after all.

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