It’s that time of year again. Get ready for colorful leaves, crackling fires, and, of course, “pumpkin spice” flavoring.
In the U.S., everything edible—from cookies and lattes to ketchup and hummus—has gone seasonal yet again. But how exactly is the favorite fall flavor made? And what makes Americans love it so much?
Botanically speaking, pumpkins are actually indistinguishable from some other types of squash. Culturally speaking (at least in the United States), it’s another story.
We’ve associated pumpkins with nostalgia since the 19th century, when Americans started moving en masse from rural to city life. That’s when pumpkins began appearing in poetry and paintings to symbolize a collective longing for an idyllic past.
And the tradition stays strong as each autumn so many of us flock to buy some pumpkin-flavored feelings.
Many products bearing the “pumpkin spice” moniker contain pumpkin in name only. The sweet and spicy flavor is usually conjured from some combination of the chemicals found in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. These remind us of pumpkin pie, a much more complex treat that contains 340 chemical compounds. Our autumn-loving brains fill in the blanks to trigger the taste of the beloved dessert. That sparks a feeling of warmth and nostalgia for special times with family, friends, and of course—food.
Our seasonal, sentimental consumption of pumpkin spice can be compared to countless other cultural and religious customs. We ascribe meaning to food and build it into rituals as a way to celebrate occasions, express who we are, and join together in community.
How many foods can your students identify with pumpkin-spice flavoring? Make it a class project to list them all!
Do your students have any “pumpkin-flavored feelings”? Do pumpkins or pumpkin spice evoke nostalgic emotions or thoughts?
Can your students think of any other “seasonal” foods? How about holiday-friendly peppermint? Summery lime?
Challenge your students to identify foods that are meaningful to their families, regions, or religious groups. Then check out our activity Culture and Food and Ritual, Oh My! to get students thinking about culinary conventions around the world.
Nat Geo: Culture and Food and Ritual, Oh My!
Nat Geo: Nutty for Nutmeg
National Public Radio: Just What Is In Pumpkin Spice Flavor (Hint: Not Pumpkin)
National Public Radio: Why Americans Go Crazy for Pumpkin-Flavored Stuff
Institute of Food Technologists: Pumpkin Spice Food Facts with Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS