When Starbucks added the pumpkin spice latte to menus in 2003, the brand launched a sensation. Today the seasonal seasoning (which may or may not contain actual pumpkin) can be found in everything from SPAM to Cup Noodles. Pumpkin Spice Mania may seem like a contemporary trend, but its roots stretch back far. According to Smithsonian, colonial Americans were cooking with the spice blend in the 18th century.
The earliest known recipes for pumpkin spice appear in the cookbook American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. The 1796 publication contains the first recipes for Johnny Cakes made with cornmeal and cranberry sauce. It also tells readers how to make an early version of another dish that would become a Thanksgiving classic: “pompkin” pie.
American pumpkin pie isn’t just pumpkin (or squash) puree that’s been dumped into a crust. Its signature flavor comes from a mix of warm spices we’ve come to associate with fall. Simmons’s two recipes for “pompkin” pie filling contain many of the same ingredients that go into modern pumpkin spice blends, such as mace, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice. They're missing cinnamon and clove, two standard pumpkin pie spices today, but her pies would have evoked the same soul-warming sensation as your Starbucks PSL.
In 1796, Simmons’s early pumpkin spice recipes would have lacked another key ingredient: nostalgia. Research from Johns Hopkins University suggests that much of the appeal of the autumnal taste is in our heads. Because we only sip pumpkin spice lattes a few months a year, we connect the flavor and aroma with memories of that time period. So if you stock up on pumpkin spice everything the moment Labor Day ends, you may be more interested in the emotional reaction the products elicit than their actual taste. Though that still doesn’t explain why anyone would spend money on pumpkin spice toilet paper.