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The spicy history of how pumpkin spice got so popular

Autumn is here, and that can only mean one thing — everything now comes in a ‘pumpkin spice’ option. You might be surprised to hear, however, that this isn’t a modern fad; the spice mix goes back a long way.

Image via Pikrepo.

Despite its name, pumpkin spice doesn’t contain any pumpkin. The name stuck because this mix was originally marketed as flavoring for pumpkin-containing items such as pies or cakes. It hails from the 1930’s when US-based McCormick started selling the mix commercially under the name of ‘pumpkin pie spice’.

So if it’s not pumpkin, what is it? Well, it is a mixture of sweet spices — cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves — all ground together in various proportions; sometimes, it can also include allspice. It’s similar in composition to mixes typically added to British pudding. Although it doesn’t necessarily have the same proportions of each spice, it’s very likely that the two are related.

So where did the British get it from?

In very broad lines, as tended to be the case for most spices in Europe, the answer is South-East Asia.

Even today, the world’s chief source of nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) are the Malaku Islands of Indonesia, where the plant is endemic. This area accounts for around 90% of the global production of nutmeg, which earned it the moniker of the ‘Spice Islands‘. Malaysia also produces some nutmeg, as do the Caribbean islands. There is a species of ‘California nutmeg’ native to the US, but this isn’t related to true nutmeg and is not used as a spice.

Nutmeg fruit with the seed (from which the spice is made) and seed covering or ‘aril’ (from which mace is produced). Image via Pixabay.

Cinnamon is also chiefly produced in South and South-East Asia, with Indonesia, China, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka accounting for over 90% of total production. India, China, Nigeria, and Nepal grow most of the world’s ginger. Cloves used to come from Indonesia, but the species has since been transported to and successfully grown in other warm countries such as Mexico.

How did it all start

The individual spices that make up pumpkin spice have long been used in the places where they’re endemic.

Map of protohistoric spice trade routes of the Austronasian peoples  in the Indian Ocean. Image created by Wikiuser Obsidian Soul after Palgrave Macmillan.

Nutmeg, for example, is a traditional ingredient in Indian cuisine and employed as a medicinal plant in countries all around the Indian Ocean. It was also the lynchpin of bustling trade routes in the area; natives on the Banda Islands made a decent living by growing their crops of spices, while Arab and Indian traders made a fortune from carrying it around.

Europeans got their first taste of nutmeg from Arab traders. There is some evidence to suggest that it made its way around these parts back when Rome still had an empire. For example, Pliny the Elder describes several spices in his book Naturalis Historia, including nutmeg, and his description is accurate enough to suggest he had actually encountered the plant and wasn’t basing his words on hearsay. Keep in mind however that the Romans had a more wide-bearing definition of spices than we do today, which included medical plants, those used for perfumes or intended to be burnt, such as incense, plants that were used in makeup, and those that could be employed to preserve food. Pedanius Disocorides, a physician born in the Greek states of Asia Minor also describes over six hundred medicinal plants (including spices) coming from the Orient in his medical treatise De materia medica.

The land routes (red) and maritime routes (blue) of the Silk Road cca. the 11th century. Image via Wikimedia.

From works such as these, we gather that spices including nutmeg and cinnamon made their way to Europe either by ship from ports on the western coast of India, through the Red Sea and then Turkey, or on land routes through China on the “Via scitica” (the Scythian Road) — from Beijing through the Gobi Desert, Kazakhstan, over the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea, then over the Black Sea and Azov Sea, finally arriving at Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). Spices also sometimes traveled via the “Via serica” (literally “the Silk Road”), which was the avenue of trade and diplomacy between China and Europe (mostly the Roman Empire) in antiquity.

Although these trade routes of Antiquity introduced Europeans to the plants that would eventually culminate in the pumpkin spice, these were still extremely expensive commodities. By the time that Emperor Diocletian issued his Edict of Maximum Prices (“Edictum de Maximis pretiis”) in the year 301 AD, many spices were worth more than gold or jewels per the same unit of volume. It has to be mentioned that Roman coins were severely debased (devalued by inflation) at the time due to shenanigans by a long string of rulers during the Imperial Crisis, but these affected the prices of all commodities.

Spices were so extremely expensive because they needed to be transported over vast stretches of land or sea, changing hands several times, with everyone taking a cut (and increasing the price) in the process. This leads us nicely to:

The middle bit

Everybody was making bank from carrying spices towards Europe. So they kept the source a secret from those who bought them. Even in the days of Pliny, merchants would talk of winged beasts guarding the spices and other similarly fantastical tales, and Pliny mocked them relentlessly for it. But the mystery only deepened with the collapse of the Roman Empire when a lot of local knowledge (including that of far-away places) was lost.

A 17th century plaque to Dutch East India Company in Hoorn, Holland. Image via Wikimedia.

Although we know that spices such as nutmeg were still being used in Europe by the 8th century, where they came from was still a mystery. As far as the locals knew, spices grew on foreign ships and were harvested in Venice. By the time it reached Europe, a bag of nutmeg was worth more than most people made in a lifetime.

With that in mind, you’ll be so surprised to hear what happened after explorers such as Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India, and the islands of South-East Asia in the process, in around 1499. Yup, it was war.

Not with the natives, per se — although the Dutch East India Company would end up wiping out around 90% of them and enslaving the rest — and not instantly. Portuguese traders were very content to just buy the spices from the Bandanese at first, partly because it was still lucrative, partly because they tried (and failed) to establish fortifications on the island.

But there was, eventually, war between the European powers of Britain, Portugal, Spain, and the Dutch. Spices were stupidly expensive in Europe (at this time, nutmeg was still more expensive than gold), so everybody wanted to have a monopoly on them, overcharge, and keep all the profits. The fighting started after the Dutch established their first land bases in the area, around 1512, and raged on until the late 1660s.

“The surrender of the Prince Royal” by Willem van de Velde the Younger. Prince Royal was a massive English flagship surrendered to the Dutch after it hit a sandbank during the Four Days’ Battle, as both countries fought to over spice colonies and trade routes.

Britain managed to hold onto the island of Rhun (or Run) which became their first (but definitely not last) colony until 1667, when they traded it over for Manhattan. This gave the Dutch pretty much full control over all the nutmeg, cloves, and a bunch of other local spices that flowed towards Europe — so they had full control over how expensive they were (very expensive). From there, the Dutch East India Company (or ‘Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie’, VOC, in Dutch) grew into the richest company in history, estimated at around 7.8 trillion of your modern dollars. Apple and Google, for comparison, are worth ‘only’ $2 trillion and $1 trillion, respectively.

As a side-note, it can be argued that the globalized trade and interdependent markets of today wouldn’t exist in their current form if it weren’t for the VOC. It set the blueprint we still follow today: for example, it was the first-ever company to sell its shares publicly and to directly tie two economies on different continents together. All in all a very impressive endeavor, if you can overlook the astonishing depths of moral depravity and human suffering it was built on.

It would all however end eventually, as all things do, when in 1769 French-born Pierre Poivre smuggled nutmeg seedlings to the Mauritius islands. The company would eventually be dissolved, on the last day of the year 1799.

During the Napoleonic wars, the Netherlands were technically England’s enemies as they were kind of strong-armed into the French Empire. With this excuse in hand, the British invaded Dutch holdings in South-East Asia, and nutmeg became a cherished part of British culture (and was enthusiastically planted in any and all colonies where it would grow).

How we put it in a latte

Pumpkin spice today is heavily associated with autumn. It got here because the mix was advertised specifically for products containing pumpkin, such as pies or cakes, in the US (mainly due to the British legacy of using spices such as nutmeg and cloves in cakes and puddings). Since pumpkins were in season in the autumn, when those orange gourds were ripe for harvest (they don’t keep very well so most don’t last the winter), that’s when most Americans first encountered the mix, and an association formed.

Image via Pxfuel.

Over time, however, people figured out that you can sell pumpkin spice even sans pumpkin. So they did.

Spices today definitely don’t command the astronomical prices they did a mere 200 years ago — chiefly because most aren’t controlled by any monopolies. They’re definitely still valued, but they’re not reserved only for the tables of the rich and powerful any longer. Being much more affordable means that more people are willing to pay the extra cost just to enjoy the flavors they bring. So, naturally, people started putting it in coffee.

Pumpkin spice, in itself, isn’t even very unique — variations on this mix have been in use for the last 2 to 3 centuries now. It caught on specifically during the late 90s in coffee shops, and really took off with Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte, introduced in 2003.

Exactly why it’s so popular is debatable. However, it’s worth pointing out that cinnamon, nutmeg, and to some extent cloves as well, are heavily used in home-made food and sweets during the winter holidays, especially in British culture (which heavily informed American cooking and customs). Smells and aromas are strong elicitors of feelings and memories, so maybe these lattes bring us back to our emotional happy place, one where we’re enjoying the holidays with our family at home around the fire.

Pumpkins.

This Halloween, do the right thing — fight food waste and eat your pumpkin

The scariest monster this Halloween is food waste.

Pumpkins.

Image credits Alexa / Pixabay.

Throw up your spider webs and hang those skeletons, Halloween is here! As all terrors let loose on the day, excessive food waste is also making an appearance. Millions of pumpkins have been bought for the occasion — and most of them will end up in the landfill, not beneath a pie’s crust. Which is a shame, as pumpkins are delicious.

Pies for everyone! But not really

Eight million pumpkins will get binned on November 1st in the UK alone, The Guardian reports. It’s a terrible waste of a very tasty treat. It’s a downright tragic waste, as the squashes could be used to make “enough pumpkin pie to feed the entire [UK] nation,” the publication adds, citing a study commissioned by stock brand Knorr.

Roughly 58% of all consumers will buy a pumpkin to carve this Halloween, according to the Hubbub Foundation, a charity that creates environmental campaigns “with a difference”. Over half of these buyers (51%) will throw away the pumpkin and leftovers, without cooking or composting it, they add. Only about one-third of buyers will try to cook the pumpkin’s innards.

“Halloween has become increasingly popular in the UK, but unlike those on the other side of the pond, many Britons aren’t cooking with their pumpkin carvings – instead they’re throwing them away,” said Tessa Tricks of Hubbub. “This is contributing to the overwhelming amount of waste thrown away by UK households each year.”

The Hubbub Foundation, which runs the #PumpkinRescue campaign, focused on data in the UK. But the findings translate well to every other country with enthusiastic adherence to Halloween traditions, such as the US. Writing for Inhabitat, Perry Miller says that the land of the apple pie will trash 1.3 billion pounds of pumpkins after the festivities. All that extra trash will wind up in the landfill, which wastes money and is bad for the environment. Once there, the pumpkins will start to rot away, releasing methane and carbon dioxide — both greenhouse gases.

Pumpkin patch.

Image credits Vlad Vasnetsov.

Canada will also see its fair share of pumpkin waste. Farmer Rob Galey told Inhabitat that pumpkin patches attract thousands of visitors each year from all over the country. They will buy a pumpkin and take it home, but don’t intend to eat it. They’re buying a metaphor, Rob explains. Something that represents an abundant fall harvest, something that will look good in a photo — but not food.

There’s also an ethical side to consider here. Some Halloween pumpkins are inedible and specified as “for ornamental use only” but the flesh of most is edible. With so many people starving across the world, can we make peace with ourselves for this gratuitous display of disregard for food?

I for one am really excited every time Halloween swings by. It’s more of an adopted holiday around these parts, and Halloween traditions haven’t had time to grow roots here. But I will buy a pumpkin and carve it, without fail, every year.

And throw it in the oven the next day with a sprinkling of sugar and a dash of cinnamon.

If you’re looking for tips on how to cook your plump Halloween pumpkin, Hubbub’s #PumpkinRescue campaign page has some pretty nifty suggestions. If you’re in the UK, you can also check out some of the events they’re holding from the 5th October through to November 5th all over the isles, ranging from “carving and cooking workshops to soup tasting.”

NASA’s pumpkin competition absolutely smashes everything else

There’s nice pumpkin carvings, there’s really good pumpkin carvings, and then there’s NASA level pumpkin carvings. Every Halloween, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) gives its engineers and scientists a bunch of pumpkins and one hour to come up with the best they can — yes, it’s everything you hoped it would be.

This year, they’ve really outdone themselves, with jack-o-lanterns such as a mini-Juno and a Pac-Man pumpkin. As Science Alert so eloquently puts it, it’s really a carving competition as much as a Halloween science fair on crack. In the end, everyone wins.

Here are some of the most spectacular designs, courtesy of Aaron Yazzie, a mechanical engineer at NASA – and before you ask, yes, that is a solar system spinning inside a pumpkin.

Halloween Pumpkins – Where do they come from?

Image via Wikipedia.

Every October, thousands and thousands of pumpkins are carved into scary shapes and lit up from the inside, but why do we even do that? Here, we take a look at how this tradition emerged and became so popular across the world.

[Remember: The ZME Halloween contest is LIVE!]

The origins of Halloween

The origins of Halloween are actually connected to pagan beliefs, and don’t originate in Christian rituals, as many believe. Truth be told, today it’s kind of a hybrid celebration, incorporating both Celtic and Christian traditions.

Halloween was previously called “All Hallows’ Eve”, which already starts to give an indication about its origin. All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, with pagan roots in the Gaelic festival Samhain. Samhain was a festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, which is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Burning scarecrow at a modern Samhain celebration. Image credits: Sylvan Smith.

When the Christians expanded to Western Europe, they came across these Gaelic populations and wanted to convert them. However, they realized that if they tried to replace their celebrations, it’d be really difficult to convert them, so they just mixed two things together and created a hybrid celebration. The pagan harvest fest was blended in with the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. Originally, no meat was eaten for All Hallows’ Eve, but today, abstinence from meat is not generally required, although eating certain vegetarian foods for this vigil day is still common, especially apples, colcannon, cider, potato pancakes, and soul cakes.

Which leads us to our question: why do we carve pumpkins?

Jack O’Lantern

Carved pumpkins (or in some cases, turnips), are called jack o’lantern. We don’t know for sure where this practice comes from, but it seems to come from an old Irish legend, the legend of Stingy Jack.

However, carving vegetables has been a common practice in many parts of the world; gourds are among the earliest domesticated plants, and there are some indications that they were carved as early as 10.000 years ago. Gourds were used to carve lanterns by the Maori over 700 years ago, and the Maori word for a gourd is actually used to describe a lampshade. However, today’s Halloween carvings likely occur from the British and Irish regions. So, what about Stingy Jack?

According to the story, Stingy Jack once asked the Devil to have a drink with him; weird, huh? Wait, it gets way better. True to his name, he didn’t then want to pay for his drink, which shows just how much nerve he had. He convinced the Devil to turn into a coin so that he could pay for the drinks, but when the Devil did turn into a coin, Jack decided to keep the money in his pocket, next to a silver cross – which prevented the Devil from turning back to his original shape. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and leave his soul alone.

Still, it gets even stranger.

Jack met up with the Devil and somehow managed to convince him to climb up a tree to pick up some fruit. He then sculpted a cross on the tree’s bark to prevent him from getting down, and forcing a promise that he will be left alone for ten more years, and his soul will not be claimed. Why didn’t he just ask him to be left alone for good, I don’t know. Jack was a strange guy.

But not long after that, Jack’s soul passed away. God didn’t really want the like of Jack in Heaven, so he sent him to hell. But the Devil was still upset by Jack’s tricks and he had to keep his word and not claim his soul. So instead, he sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. He was called Jack of the Lantern, or for short – Jack o’lantern.

The people thought that by making their own lanterns to scare Jack off. In Ireland and Scotland, they used turnips or potatoes and placed them by the window. In England, large beets were used. The British and Irish that moved to the US took this tradition with them, and discovered that the pumpkin, a species native to America, works perfectly for that, so they used pumpkins instead.

Carved Jack. Image in Wiki Commons.

There are other similar (or different stories), but in all the stories, there’s someone that makes a deal with the Devil to have his soul free.

Today’s Pumpkins

Today, carving pumpkins is as much an industry as it is a tradition. 1.5 billion pounds (680,000,000 kilograms or 680,000 tonnes) of pumpkins are produced each year are grown each year! Interestingly, 90 percent of the pumpkins grown in the United States are raised within a 90-mile radius of Peoria, Illinois, and even more interestingly, most pumpkins are processed into canned pumpkin and canned pie mix – not for carving. There are pumpkin carving competitions, and the scary faces traditionally made on pumpkins are often replaced by other creative designs. The world’s largest jack-o’-lantern was carved from the then-world’s-largest pumpkin on October 31, 2005 in Northern Cambria, Pennsylvania; it weighed 1,469 lb (666.33 kg) on October 1, 2005.

So, prepare your pumpkins and your carving knife, because we couldn’t really imagine Halloween without pumpkins, could we? It’s not about making the best ones, it’s about enjoying a century-old tradition; and keeping Jack o’lantern away.