The Fascinating 400-Year History of Pumpkin Spice

Pumpkin spice feels like a thoroughly modern flavor. The spicy combo exploded onto the food scene in the early 2000s when Starbucks released its famous Pumpkin Spice Latte. In reality, though, pumpkin spice dates back over 400 years.

First, a point of clarification. There is no actual pumpkin in pumpkin spice! The term refers to the warm combination of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon that’s used to flavor pumpkin pie.

So where did this flavor come from? Let’s take a trip back in time.

The First Pumpkin Spice Treat

The first recorded instance of a chef likely using pumpkin spice appears in The True French Chef. This iconic cookbook was published in 1651 by Pierre de la Varenne.

Cover of Varenne’s 1651 book

Varenne was the equivalent of today’s celebrity chefs. In his cookbook, he described a pie made with pumpkin and sugar. He doesn’t explicitly mention the spices used in his pie, but it’s quite likely they were similar to the pie slices used today.

Botanical drawing of pumpkin
Botanical drawing of pumpkin. Courtesy Library of Congress/Public Domain

With the Dutch establishing a slice trade in several Southeast Asian islands in the early 1600s, speculos (a blend of spices often used in Dutch baked goods) was already popular. Varenne may have drawn on this combo in choosing the spices for his pie.

Interestingly, Varenne compares his pie to a meat pie. Pumpkin pie was likely inspired by the pot pies and other popular meat pies in France and England.

Although The True French Chef was published in 1651, the book is a compendium of recipes Varenne gathered from the existing French culinary tradition. People were likely making the pie he describes since at least the early 1600s.

That’s right—pumpkin spice, as a flavor, is likely over 400 years old!

The American Connection

Pumpkin spice continued to be used in French cooking. Ultimately, the flavor and the pie made it across the Atlantic to America when Varenne’s book was translated to English.

American settlers had already received pumpkins from Native Americans, and they quickly set about making pumpkin pies in Varenne’s style. 

A 1671 cookbook, The Compleat Cook, was among the first to explicitly mention the spices that we consider pumpkin spice today. In its recipe for “Pumpion Pie” (yes that’s the original spelling), it calls for “cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and six cloves.”

That’s a decent description of the ingredients in a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte today!

American settlers would continue to make pumpkin pie using this iconic spice combination for generations. 

Pumpkin pie ad. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The pie was later associated with the abolition movement, lending it even more historical significance.

Pumpkin Spice Goes Official

The first official reference to “pumpkin spice” arrived in 1934, when Baltimore-based spice company McCormick began to sell its Pumpkin Pie Spice blend.

The blend was (and still is) intended to allow home cooks to easily season their pumpkin pies. It’s a blend that’s very similar to the OG pumpkin spice in 1671’s Compleat Cook: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice.

For years, the flavor was mainly used in pies. That all changed in 2003, when a team of flavor scientists at Starbucks came up with the idea for the Pumpkin Spice Latte. 

The drink was originally going to be called the Fall Harvest Latte, a name that harkens back to pumpkin spice’s American origins. But ultimately the modern PSL name won out.

Pumpkin Spice sign at Starbucks today
Pumpkin Spice at Starbucks today

Pumpkin Spice Today

Today, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is one of Starbucks’ iconic drinks. The chain has integrated pumpkin spice flavor into a wide range of other drinks, including a new pumpkin spice chai tea.

Many other local brands have added the flavor to everything from donuts to candy.

That’s not bad for a flavor that’s been around for four centuries! The next time you sip a pumpkin spice latte, remember that you’re enjoying a flavor with a rich, 400-year history spanning multiple continents, generations and cultures.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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