Welcome to the pumpkin spice industrial complex

From humble fall fruit to the star of its own economy

November 13, 2022 8:00 am

The market for pumpkin spice products has skyrocketed to over $6 billion, according to a Forbes article. (Photo by Suzanna de Baca)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Fall festivities are in full swing in the Midwest, with activities and spending underway on everything from candy and costumes to cornucopias. Leading the way all autumn long is the pumpkin, a humble fruit that has spawned an entire industry of its own.

Remember the Great Pumpkin from the Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schultz?  Linus maintained that the Great Pumpkin would ascend from the pumpkin patch on Halloween and deliver toys to children everywhere. Defending his belief, he said, “Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere.”

I can’t help but wonder if the adult version of Linus would still be holding out for the Great Pumpkin. It’s likely, but it’s equally probable that Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, Charlie Brown and friends would be waiting in the patch with their iPhones and pumpkin spice lattes in hand.

With pumpkins on display on nearly every doorstep on my morning walk and pumpkin spice items jumping out from store shelves at every turn, I found myself curious about the backstory of the pumpkin and how this whole pumpkin spice phenomenon occurred.

(Photo by Suzanna de Baca)

Of course, I had to start at the beginning. I found that the general term “pumpkin” is used to describe any winter squash that has a hard rind, is typically ribbed, and is more or less round in shape. While most folks think pumpkins are vegetables, they are actually fruits which grow on a vine.

Pumpkins belong to the Cucurbita genus, along with cucumbers, melons, and squash and the name generally refers to members of four different species, C. moschata, C. mixta, C. pep, and C. maxima. Pumpkins come in every color: they can be white, green, yellow, orange, and gray or mottled, and they can smooth, bumpy, knobby, or even covered with warts (called “Knuckle Heads”). They come in many sizes, but those in the 10-to-25 pound range are the ones we primarily see used for decorations like jack-o-lanterns and for processing. Both the flesh and the seeds are nutrient rich, and the leaves can be eaten as well.

Pumpkins have a special place in American agricultural and culinary history. They originated in Central America over 9,000 years ago; indigenous peoples grew pumpkins long before the cultivation of corn or beans.

According to the American Indian Health and Diet Project, archeologists discovered the oldest pumpkin seeds in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico. Those ancient seeds vary from the orange pumpkins we know today, producing a bitter, hard fruit. Columbian Native Americans domesticated pumpkins for their flesh, making them one of the first wild plants cultivated for human consumption in America. Pumpkins were easy to grow and store throughout the winter due to their thick skins and flesh, so were a sought after food source for Native Americans and early colonists.

The English colonists became acquainted with pumpkins even prior to arriving in the New World, according to food historian and writer Tori Avey’s “A Slice of Pumpkin History.” There is evidence that at the 3-day meeting between English colonists and the Wampanoag tribe known as the First Thanksgiving, pumpkins were included in the meal.

Pumpkins in those times were generally boiled, roasted, fried or mashed, but a University of Illinois Extension department write-up reported that colonists sliced off pumpkin tops, removed seeds, filled the insides with milk, spices, and honey, and baked in hot ashes — perhaps the origin of pumpkin pie. The colonists found the seeds equally valuable, as they could be dried and salted.

In that same era, according to the University of Illinois Extension department, Native Americans roasted long strips of pumpkin on an open fire, flattened the strips of pumpkins, dried them and wove the fibers into mats. They called pumpkins “isqoutm squash,” and used them both for food and medicine.

One of the earliest pumpkin recipes recorded in English appeared in 1672, when John Josselyn included a diced and cooked pumpkin dish in his book “New-England Rarities Discovered.” That preparation was finished with butter and spices, much like modern-day mashed sweet potatoes.

Early English colonists loved the pumpkin, but it was a favorite of the Spanish even before the pilgrims arrived. According to a Christian Science Monitor article, pumpkins were discovered by Spanish conquistadors, who took samples of calabazas (Spanish for pumpkin) home to Queen Isabella of Castile in the late 1400s. Mexican pumpkins are broadly known as calabaza de castilla, which many trace back to her approval of the new world fruit. Pumpkins, including the seeds or pepitas, have been used for centuries in countless dishes in the Southwest U.S., including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Pumpkins continued to be popular throughout American history. An agricultural crop, pumpkins are now how many Americans make a  living. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, over 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkin are produced in the U.S., on over 15,214 farms. The USDA reports that pumpkin production is dispersed across the country, with about 40% of pumpkin acres harvested in the top six pumpkin producing states: Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Michigan, and California. In 2021, farmers in these six states harvested more than 1 billion pounds of pumpkins combined. Despite our agricultural pride, my home state of Iowa does not even rank in the top 10.

Fall is pumpkin time. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, 80% of pumpkins are picked in October. The USDA reports that the value of the utilized production of pumpkins in 2020 is estimated at $180.3 million with the average U.S. farm price for pumpkins approximately 8 cents per pound. The average pumpkin cost as of this year is $2.60, but a larger pumpkin is more expensive. With 44% of Americans carving jack-o-lanterns annually, you may be thinking this is an attractive industry.

But the real money in the pumpkin business these days is not pumpkin per se: It’s pumpkin spice.

Pumpkin spice as we know it dates back to colonial times, with mentions in John Josselyn’s “New-England Rarities Discovered” and Amelia Simmon’s “American Cookery,” published in 1793. In the latter cookbook, one pumpkin recipe used a combination of mace, nutmeg and ginger, and another employed a mix of molasses, allspice and ginger.

Canned pumpkin was just the start of what now adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars in pumpkin-spice grocery items. (Photo by Suzanna de Baca)

Today, pumpkin spice describes a popular spice blend that employs a combination of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. (Fun fact: while pumpkins are native to North America, the actual spice blends are all from tropical plants.) This blend was codified by the McCormick spice company in 1934.

Not surprisingly, this mix hit the market at the same time canned pumpkin became widely available – and marketed aggressively. The fall recipes for pumpkin pies, breads and bars that we now consider typical became increasingly popular post-war, and pumpkin spice made it easy for cooks to get the flavor just right. The ensuing generations of Americans – Greatest, Boomers, Gen X, and millennials – were all raised on this pumpkin pie spice blend, mostly enjoying pumpkin dishes during the fall season. Our cultural DNA is coded with a powerful message that fall = pumpkin.

My family contributed to this tradition. We tend to replenish two main spices in the fall: poultry seasoning and pumpkin pie spice. While we ate baked pumpkin and used pepitas in calavaza dishes, my mother always made pumpkin custard in the fall and pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving – and without fail a good friend brought a batch of boozy hard sauce to top it with. My stepsons loved pumpkin bars, and it was a sign that autumn had arrived when one of us whipped up a batch, smothered in cream cheese frosting.

According to my sleuthing, everything was going along as usual with pumpkin and pumpkin spices until 2003, when Peter Dukes, then Starbuck’s director of espresso, decided to create a special drink for fall. According to the Starbucks website, he’d seen the success of gingerbread latte and peppermint mocha specialty drinks the previous holiday season, and was inspired. He and his team decamped to a room decorated with pumpkins to come up with a fall blend. And behold, after they’d rejected the name “fall spice latte,” pumpkin spice was born again in the form of a beverage.

After the introduction of Starbuck’s pumpkin spice latte (PSL for short), the pumpkin spice market exploded in the U.S. Exploded is an understatement. Fast Company reported that Starbucks PSLs were so successful that by 2013, they could not keep up with demand.

Of course, other coffee companies quickly got on the bandwagon with pumpkin spice:  Peet’s Coffee, Nespresso and Dunkin’, among others. In my own market, Hy-Vee, Kum & Go and even the Casey’s in my tiny hometown of Huxley, Iowa, offer pumpkin spice varieties on a seasonal basis.

Beverages were just the beginning. The market for pumpkin spice products has skyrocketed to over $6 billion, according to a Forbes article. The Guardian reported on Nielsen IQ research that showed during the fiscal year that ended on July 30, 2022, Americans purchased more than $236 million in pumpkin spice flavored grocery items. This includes everything from pumpkin spice Pringles, Goldfish, Martha Stewart Gummies, Nissan Ramen Noodles and even pumpkin spice SPAM.

Pumpkin spice has moved beyond food. There are now a dizzying array of pumpkin spice household items including scented deodorant, air fresheners, trash bags, leaf bags, cleaning products, candles, human and dog shampoo, and pet treats. There is even pumpkin spice scented eye shadow. I’m assuming that palette is orange.

Pumpkin spice is so gigantic and so ubiquitous that Forbes described the phenomenon as “the pumpkin spice industrial complex.”

Interestingly, the pumpkin spice craze is limited to the U.S. Despite the fact that pumpkin is available worldwide, it remains a North American phenomenon.

Why is pumpkin spice so incredibly popular here? Kara Nielsen, a trendologist for the food and beverage industry, told Cooking Light that the popularity of pumpkin spice might stem from the short seasonal window in which it is offered. This year, Starbucks launched PSLs and other pumpkin spice items as early as Aug. 30 and they’re available through fall, or until supplies last. So there is the scarcity angle.

But I think it’s deeper: The taste and the smell is loaded with nostalgia. It’s a flavor associated with holidays, fall, and family – a time associated with indulgence, at least when it comes to food. We love pumpkin spice for the memories of pleasure; there is some sort of luxury or enchantment it promises, a return to childhood or a re-creation of a happy time.

Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte started the craze but the autumn flavor is now widely available. (Photo by Suzanna de Baca)

Starbucks saw the potential of infusing a special season into a beverage – leveraging the powerful flavors and aromas latent with meaning and desire — to sell product. They were prescient. We do want to feel connected to the magic of fall: crisp nights, autumn leaves, pumpkin carving, trick-or-treat and harvest time and Thanksgiving. And apparently countless Americans are willing to pay a premium to get that feeling in a cup.

But like Christmas or Valentine’s Day or other holidays, we’ve metamorphosed something very special into a marketing phenomenon. The modest pumpkin, the simple squash indigenous to our nation, has now spawned a consumer craze that’s even extended to deodorant. I’m all for deodorant, but pumpkin spice? Really?

What does it mean when we co-opt a central part of our culture and turn it into something commercial? Have we taken something unassuming and beautiful about America and elevated it in a way that reflects who we are as Americans? Is the pumpkin spice industrial complex ultimately an homage to the success of capitalism? Do we love the spice combination so much that we just woke up to its potential in 2003? It’s hard to decipher how to interpret our obsession, and what it means.

“The Great Pumpkin has been cited as a symbol of strong faith and foolish faith,” said writer Rich Cohen in a 2019 New York Times article titled, “The Magic of Linus and ‘The Great Pumpkin.” He went on to say that Linus’ “seemingly unshakable belief in the Great Pumpkin, and his desire to foster the same belief in others,” has been simultaneously interpreted as a parody of evangelism and a symbol of those bucking the majority. Additionally, he notes that some see Linus’ lonely vigils – wondering if the divine would make its presence known – as a metaphor for the basic existential dilemma of humankind.

I believe that we are earnest in our national love for pumpkin spice. Based on our spending, Americans must derive deep enjoyment and pleasure from all these items, from PSLs to scented air fresheners. So I just try to believe that marketing has little to do with it. We’re not being manipulated too much, right?

As Linus said in the Great Pumpkin movie“He’s gotta pick this one. He’s got to. I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”

This column was originally published by Suzanna de Baca’s blog, Dispatches from the Heartland. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Suzanna de Baca
Suzanna de Baca

Suzanna de Baca is an Iowa native, proud Latina, CEO of Business Publications Corp., board director, and author who is passionate about exploring change and transformation, inclusion, and life in the Midwest. She lives in Huxley, Iowa. She is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative and her blog, Dispatches from the Heartland, is on Substack.