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The Power behind Pumpkin Spice

In the U.S., autumn has become synonymous with pumpkin spice. Although pumpkin spice is most associated with the highly anticipated Starbucks drink, the spice mix itself provides a window into colonialism and the fraught spice trade, past and present.

What is pumpkin spice?

Despite its name, pumpkin spice contains no pumpkin, but is actually a blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice, with cloves and mace sometimes included. Although Starbucks has sold more than 600 million pumpkin spice lattes in the U.S. since introducing the drink in 2003, none of the spices naturally grow in North America. Rather, they’re primarily native to Southeast Asian islands.

The story of how these spices became widespread in the Western world is a story of colonialism and imperialism.

First, let’s discuss an extremely popular spice we all know—cinnamon.

Cinnamon’s Legacy of Colonialism

Although multiple varieties of cinnamon exist, the most significant conflict around the spice arose over the true cinnamon (cinnamonum zeylanicum) grown in Ceylon, modern-day Sri Lanka. For thousands of years, the indigenous people of the island thrived, and even today, one can find remains of sprawling ancient buildings like monasteries and palaces. Various kingdoms rose to power and collapsed during the island’s history until 1505 when the Portuguese arrived.

The Dutch viciously maintained a monopoly on cinnamon, going so far as to manufacture a shortage by burning large amounts of cinnamon in Amsterdam in 1760.

Around 600,000 people were living on the island at the time, mostly divided among three kingdoms. One of these—the kingdom of Kotte—had a monopoly on the southern forests where the cinnamon tree grew. The Portuguese exploited political strife between the kingdoms of Kotte and Sitavaka, and by the early 16th century, they had taken control of the cinnamon supply. The Portuguese maintained this control ruthlessly even as kingdoms in Sri Lanka evolved, until the new kingdom of Kandy asked the Dutch East India Company for help in pushing out the Portuguese. The Dutch were all too happy to do so, though of course they had no plans to return governance of the island to the natives. Instead, they viciously maintained a monopoly on the spice, going so far as to manufacture a shortage by burning large amounts of cinnamon in Amsterdam in 1760. Eventually the British Empire took control of Sri Lanka and had a presence there until 1948.

Almost five hundred years of colonial rule has taken its toll on Sri Lanka—the islanders did not have control of their own governments or natural resources, and empires created deep divides by favoring certain ethnic groups. This has led to decades of strife and lasting difficulties even after the country gained independence.

A Global Mixture of Spices

The other spices that make up the traditional fall flavor have similar stories of colonialism and conquering.

For thousands of years, the only source of nutmeg, clove, and mace were the Maluku (alternatively known as Moluccan) Islands, east of Indonesia. Indonesian sailors trading with Indian and Arabian sailors were the only reason the wider world became familiar with the taste. In the 1500s, the Portuguese, motivated by the growing demand for these rare spices, sent an expedition to locate the islands. When they eventually did so, the archipelago was quickly given the nickname of the Spice Islands. [IMAGE: Map from Princeton Libraries].

As for ginger, although indigenous to southern China the spice was eventually spread to other areas, including the Spice Islands, by colonizers. The Portuguese maintained control of the islands for about a century until the Dutch took over. Employing tactics similar to how they maintained their monopoly of cinnamon, the Dutch destroyed nutmeg trees on every island except the two where their plantations were located.

As the European empires continued to spread, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg were all brought to the Caribbean or West Indies islands and cultivated there. But allspice is actually native to the West Indies and was used by the native people for centuries in cooking and healing. Despite this, the name for the spice comes from the Spanish invaders—at first they thought it was a pepper which is why, to this day, it’s also called the “Jamaican pepper.” The colonizers also described the taste as a mixture of spices they were already familiar with: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, juniper, and pepper, leading to the name “allspice.”

The Creation of Pumpkin Spice

Through their bloodied and battled histories, these spices all became staples in Western cooking, until eventually they were blended together as one spice mix. The earliest instance of this is in The Practice of Cookery, written by a Mrs. Frazer in 1795, in which she referred to a blend of “mixed spices,” which is composed of Jamaican pepper (allspice), nutmeg, and clove, although these spices are also used with ginger and mace throughout the book—mainly in pickling recipes! Around the same time, Amelia Simmons used the combination of sugar, mace, nutmeg, and ginger to season her pumpkin pie recipe in American Cookery, the earliest example of the spice blend in the United States.

The earliest recipe of pumpkin spice was used mainly for pickling recipes!

The first reference to the blend as “pumpkin spice” wouldn’t be until over a century and a half later, when McCormick branded the blend as “pumpkin pie spice” in the 1950s (it was eventually shortened to “pumpkin spice” in the ‘60s). Fast forward even more to 2003: Starbucks released the now-famous Pumpkin Spice Latte. The drink almost didn’t make it past the testing phase, but eventually grew wildly popular helped by the rise of social media. Is it really fall if you don’t share a photo of your Pumpkin Spice Latte cup with crunchy leaves and autumnal boots?

Knowing that the key spices in pumpkin spice are rooted in a violent history of colonialism and imperialism, though, begs the question: What about the modern spice trade?

The Spice Industry Today

Many issues still plague the spice industry today. The supply chain for spices is intentionally opaque; while many spices are grown on small, family-run farms, the small amounts they grow can change hands dozens of times before reaching the supermarket. Often instead of regionally specific spices and spice blends, the spice sold in the U.S. is cobbled together from hundreds of farmers around the world. This not only increases the environmental impact of the spices as they’re shipped to and from numerous places, but also negatively affects the taste and quality by increasing the time between harvesting and consumption. Then these spice amalgamations are sold by corporations that make millions, while the farmers who grew the spices only see a small fraction of the profits—a model that is all-too-similar to the colonialist profiteering of centuries past.

Many issues still plague the spice industry today; the supply chain for spices is intentionally opaque.

Additionally, even the language used for many spices has its roots in colonial history: “Alleppey” is typically the most desirable turmeric, but all it really means is that the crop is a particularly vibrant shade of orange. The British decided that the quality of turmeric varieties was based on color, when in fact that has no relationship to the spice’s flavor or medicinal qualities. There are dozens of other examples of how the invading empires of history determined the language we use today to discuss spices.

So, what can be done?

Just like coffee, chocolate, and sugar before it, the spice industry is going through a fair-trade revolution. Numerous startups focus on selling direct-to-consumer spices, removing the murkiness of what happens to spices between being grown and arriving in your latte by working with individual farmers who are fairly compensated.

As you plan your holiday menu, consider buying spices from these companies:


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