It's that wonderful time of the year when the leaves start to change, the air feels crisp, and suddenly every basic in town is hash-tagging about their pumpkin spice purchases. While plenty of articles have been written analyzing how the pumpkin spice latte came to represent a very specific type of person, it's still worth spending some time to analyze the wonderful pumpkin pie spice itself.
Pumpkins are a new world fruit, one that the Native Americans used often, but the idea of spicing gourds and wrapping them in dough before baking is a Medieval concept. The first recognized recipe for pumpkin pie that's spiced and baked in the familiar way we know is in the first American cook book, written by orphan Amelia Simmons, in which she includes a recipe for "Pomkin Pudding." From there it is easy to see pumpkin spice's progression from cook book recipe to marketers' dream of jarred pre-mixed pumpkin spice.
So what make up the individual components of pumpkin pie spice? Pumpkin spice is made up of allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, a combination of flavors that many of us so viscerally connect with Fall that even smelling them individually can bring up visions of sweaters. Let's break them down a bit further to understand their origins:
Derived from the dried berry of an evergreen tree, Allspice is one of the only spices that is exclusively grown in the Western Hemisphere, because the plant does not thrive anywhere else. It derives its name because it is thought to taste like a combination of cloves, juniper berries, cinnamon, and pepper. It is a new world spice that became quite popular in Europe once it was discovered by the Europeans. In the 19th century, Russian soldiers put it in their boots to mask and help prevent foot odor, which helped make it the popular men's personal care scent it is today.
Native to Sri Lanka, Madagascar, the Comoro Islands, South India, Burma, and Indochina, the history of cinnamon gets pretty ugly. Used throughout ancient Egypt and a staple in the South-East, Arabs began bringing it to Europe in the Middle Ages, where it was highly coveted as a preservative for meat. As it became more and more in demand, the Europeans went on expeditions to try to track cinnamon down, Christopher Columbus among them (though he never did find it). In the 1500s when the Portuguese found it in Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) they enslaved the entire island and owned the cinnamon trade for about a century. The Island then fell to the Dutch, and then to the British, but by that point cinnamon was being cultivated in other regions.
Today there are two types of cinnamon: cassia, and ceylon. If you're using pre-made pumpkin spice in the US, chances are its mixed with cassia, as its cheaper and stronger flavored, but we recommend getting your hands on some Sri Lankan ceylon cinnamon, which is sweeter and more complex, and can add a subtler flavor to your baking and cooking.
Another spice with a bloody history, clove has been used and loved for centuries. In third century China, those granted congress with the emperor were required to chew a piece of clove beforehand so that their breath would not offend. Clove is native to Indonesia but is now cultivated worldwide. In addition to adding a warm, sweet, and spicy note to food and fragrances (like in Alder New York's Natural Clove Lip Balm) it can also be also be used topically to treat acne and sores.
Think of this plant as the Advil of the ancient East. In ancient Indian, Arabic, and Asian cultures, ginger was considered the cure-all for pretty much any ache or pain, and even today is a common natural health remedy, often recommended by doctors to pregnant women for nausea. Pungent and spicy, ginger adds intense and wonderful flavor to cooking and baking, and as a bonus, modern scientific research suggests that ginger has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
The promise of owning this coveted spice convinced the Dutch to trade the island of Manhattan with the British (they also got sugar in the deal, so maybe it was a fair trade). As with almost every spice on this list, nutmeg was the catalyst for the bloody spice wars that ruled the world in the 16th and 17th century. Part of nutmeg's appeal, in addition to tasting and smelling warm and spicy, is that is actually contains chemical constituents that make us feel good. In addition to healing properties against cold and flu, nutmeg contains a psychoactive element called myristicin, whose chemical structure is similar to mescaline, amphetamine, and ecstasy. Large quantitates are indeed hallucinogenic, and there are quite a few accounts of old time Brits getting high off the stuff. However, while we certainly are't opposed to fun, we don't recommend getting high off your stash of nutmeg; the amount needed to do so can also be seriously toxic.