On Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, a blessed event occurred — it became autumn, a time for fall festivals, falling leaves, apple picking, flannel, pumpkin carving and hot coffee. Cue the memories of the fated influx of the pumpkin spice latte into Starbucks in the ‘90s, symbolizing all things sickly sweet and over the top about Western culture.
Instead of the cool, crisp air, the smell of pumpkin spice heralds the coming of autumn for most people as the crowning glory of the season. Listing pumpkin spice lattes on coffee shop menus in August is like stores putting Christmas decorations on sale next to Halloween decorations. What is it about this particular combination of spices that makes people feel like Oprah just flew into town on a flying cow and gave everyone All of Her Favorite Things?
Spiced Coffee Has Always Been a Thing
While the pumpkin spice latte has been a Starbucks fan favorite for more than two decades now, that’s a fad compared with the 500-year-old Turkish coffee prepared filterless and with a fine grind. Sounds delicious so far, right? The sludgy result is intense and textured, but once you add sugar and spice, it’s exceptionally nice, while the spice application is left to regional and personal preference.
Masala chai has tantalized western taste buds since it was exported out of India by the British in the 1830s, thanks to the intermarrying of tea and traditional spices. Colonial wives and medieval cooks had their hands in the evolution of the remix you know and love today with an Instagram hashtag.
Masala chai has evolved, or devolved, along the way as a medicinal remedy for flatulence — yes, pooting — to a sign of poverty in colonial times to a sign of being a flannel-clad upcycled fashion and yoga blogger in modern western culture. So, you’re not basic for loving the combination of spices that make up the infamous pumpkin spice. Spiced coffee has always been a thing.
Medieval Folks Loved Their “Pumpkin” Sauce and Getting Sauced
Hark! Wouldst thou like liketh this spiced hippocras? Its warming effects shall make thy oven quicken with child, milady, and your hindquarters quiver with relief as you finally toot ye old horn, milord.
Methinks you’d be lining up at Ye Old Starbucks for a medicinal latte, too, because pumpkin spice is medicinal to the soul.
In a treatise, a 13th-century doctor to French kings listed spiced hippocras as a medicinal treatment for coughs, infertility, the heart and flatulence. Greatly popular in European courts, spiced hippocras was a wine that combined cloves, cinnamon, ginger and bird of paradise (not a real bird, just an archaic spice). This drink was served warm, like a mulled wine, and could be considered the alcoholic forefather of the pumpkin spice latte.
Medieval European folks loved their “pumpkin” sauce, too. The spices, such as cloves and cinnamon, were imported at great cost and typically went into sauces. Being able to afford to sample or make these sauces was a status symbol during these times.
If you were to indulge in the 12th century Sauce for the Lords, you’d be of high rank indeed, tasting nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cardamom and pepper, spices typically reserved for desserts and pumpkin spice lattes today. The lords and ladies were known to spike their drinks with this pumpkin sauce to enhance the palette’s pleasure as they got sauced.
Enter the Great Pumpkin
While gourds were known to these spiced hippocras-loving medieval folks, pumpkins remained unknown until Spanish explorers brought them back from the Americas. These pumpkins were met with suspicion and rumors that they might cause stomach concerns. Sounds like something spiced hippocras could fix.
Suspicious pumpkins were so yesteryear after the birth of sweet pumpkins in the 1600s. Give a big thanks to the colonist who needed a last-minute dessert item and the only thing viable in the garden was pumpkin — or she didn’t want to die of scurvy.
Among these dessert possibilities were pumpkin cake sprinkled with sugar out of France, as colonists had already tried pumpkin in bread and also masked pumpkin with spices and butter. These were better than the other “pumpkin pie” equivalent of stewed pumpkin or using the hollowed out shell to combine spices, milk and honey.
In the late 1700s, pumpkin beer made its debut, and it’s not the weak, sweet pumpkin beer of today. This stuff was strong. Many people brewed beer with fruits and vegetables, and it wasn’t a stretch to try pumpkin with bran and molasses. With crappy water, literally, poor settlers took every opportunity to make something drinkable. Today, pumpkin ale continues to be popular and pumpkin-spiced.
Pumpkin spice latte, meet your older brother, pumpkin ale. He’s come a long way, gotten weaker and a lot sweeter.
Packaging the Great Pumpkin
As the washing machine and Spam emerged, so did the Great Pumpkin come forth and get packaged. In the 1950s, companies focused their advertising heavily on women to relieve their domestic burden through quick techniques and contraptions.
Instead of having to blend their own spices, women were targeted with McCormick ads for pumpkin spice to stir into pumpkin pie mix. The spice mix includes cloves, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon — the same combo used in your pumpkin spice latte.
So, why is it called a pumpkin spice latte when there’s little to no pumpkin in the Starbucks latte? Medieval Europeans loved their spiced hippocras and raised eyebrows at those crazy Spanish explorers when they said, “Hey, dude, check out this pumpkin. Cool, huh.” Chocolate went over better.
It wasn’t until the colonists, of course, shrugged at the Great Pumpkin and mashed it up with some butter and sprinkled some sugar on top that pumpkin married spice. Then, someone packaged that idea and put it on a shelf. That’s marketing for you, folks.
When someone judges you for being basic, even if you are a flannel-wearing upcycled fashion and yoga blogger, tell them pumpkin spice goes back centuries, and go order your medicinal latte.