In centuries past, the Autumnal Equinox marked a season of harvest, bountiful feasts and preparing for the long, cold months ahead. The season was loaded with traditions that were as festive as they were a practical means of surviving brutal, pre-climate change winters. Although cornucopias filled with decorative gourds and rustic earth tones are still a popular motif in our modern era, a different tradition has become the unofficial mascot of fall: pumpkin spice.
Every year, summer is rudely interrupted by the siren that is pumpkin spice, luring us as early as mid-August into a false sense of fall. Not only are pumpkin spice products creeping into summer earlier each year, the inappropriate amount of pumpkin spice products entering the market is growing at an alarming rate. It seems like everything from beard oil to muscle-building protein powders are cashing in on the craze. According to Nielsen, pet food with pumpkin has grown 101% in the last year and 193% in the last two years.
The pumpkin tides are rising and if we are going to ride out the tsunami of pumpkin-themed products, then we have to get one thing straight: what you’re consuming has nothing to do with real pumpkins.
It’s been 14 years since Starbucks premiered the Pumpkin Spice Latte, but the history of pumpkin spice dates back to around the founding of the United States. One of the first references to a potent blend of spices used to flavor pumpkin appears in American Cookery, one of America’s first cookbooks, published in 1796 by Amelia Simmons. In an era when America began establishing its identity, this anthology – a sort of Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales for American cooking – defined the early days of our country’s cuisine and helped new settlers navigate foods native to North America, including the pumpkin.
In Simmons’ recipe titled “Pompkin,” she mixes sugar, mace, nutmeg, molasses, allspice, and ginger into a pumpkin pudding. But it wasn’t until 1936 when this mixture was officially called “pumpkin spice” in a Washington Post article titled “Spice Cake Of Pumpkin Newest Dish: Delicacy Tempting to All Appetites and Easy to Prepare. Ideal Dessert for Family Dinner, Healthful for Children.”
At this point in pumpkin spice history, people were blending these spices by hand and by preference. The pumpkin spice blend varied by family and by region. The great unifier was McCormick, the company responsible for making pumpkin spice consistent in the 1950’s with its tin of “Pumpkin Pie Spice,” a premixed blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and sulfiting agents.
But what was supposed to be one of the many great innovations of the Age of Convenience ended up becoming one of the most misleading food-marketing devices. The spice could just as effectively be sprinkled into any non-pumpkin related edibles: coffees, soups, and, in 1996, the first pumpkin spice candle. McCormick brought forth an era where one could enjoy the essence of pumpkin without ever consuming any actual pumpkin, and it has resulted in a generation of pumpkin lovers who are confused and sometimes outraged when products labeled “pumpkin” do not actually contain the bright orange fruit (yes, pumpkin is technically a fruit) that has become synonymous with the fall season.
According to the research of Chef Walter Staib of the Emmy award-winning television series A Taste of History, Americans during the late 1700s were using the Connecticut Field Pumpkin. “The Connecticut Field Pumpkin is considered one of the oldest heirloom varieties of pumpkin,” Staib explains. “It has a great flavor, it’s a very meaty pumpkin, and it has relatively soft skin.” There are also Sugar Pumpkins which Staib explains are “smaller, sweeter, and better suited for cooking.” Yet when it comes to mass produced pumpkin products, these quintessential pumpkin varieties are hardly used.
Pumpkins hail from the gourd, or “Cucurbita,” family which consists of more than 150 varieties and surprisingly includes butternut squash, zucchini and even cucumbers. But the FDA is very lenient on what can be labeled “pumpkin,” and considers a pumpkin to be “certain varieties of firm-shelled, golden-fleshed, sweet squash, […] or mixtures of such squash with field pumpkins.” So chances are, when pumpkin is on the ingredient label, you’re actually just eating squash.
Take Libby’s Pure Pumpkin, the producer of 85% of the world’s canned pumpkin. The company developed its own proprietary strain of Dickinson squash, which has a taste, texture, and appearance closer to a butternut squash than to a pumpkin. Sorry to break it to you, but not even your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie has any pumpkin in it.
The most egregious pumpkin offense: when companies are not referring to pumpkins, they’re just referring to the blend of spices that have become synonymous with pumpkins. In the case of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte, it wasn’t until 2015 when pumpkin puree was finally added to the popular drink, leaving customers bewildered that their favorite pumpkin treat lacked pumpkin for 12 years. That said, trust in the pumpkin and pumpkin spice market has hardly been broken. Nielsen reports that the pumpkin spice coffee market has grown 586% in the last year.
But pumpkin purists, do not fear! Your pumpkin spice life doesn’t have to be a complete lie. There are ways to bring real pumpkin to your cooking, and chefs like Walter Staib, who is also the owner of City Tavern in Philadelphia, are finding creative ways to bring traditional pumpkins and other winter squash to their menus.
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One of the most common cooking pumpkins are the Sugar Pumpkins, which are the star ingredient in City Tavern’s Pumpkin Cheesecake and the Traditional Pumpkin Pie. But that’s not the only pumpkin Walter Staib recommends. “There is a pumpkin called Amish Pie,” explains Staib, “which is an heirloom variety that comes from Maryland and the Mid Atlantic region.” In regards to winter squash, Staib recommends the black forest variety. “It is like a button-less buttercup squash with a deep orange flesh,” says Staib, “and it is known for its sweetness.”