Just the abbreviation "PSL" (which stands for Pumpkin Spice Latte) brings to mind crunchy leaves on the ground (a recent addition for me as a Floridian at school in the Midwest), a cool autumn breeze and the exciting anticipation of another school year. 

Despite it all, I can't say I even remotely enjoy the taste of pumpkin spice lattes. There is an odd after-taste that sticks with me for way too long after just a sip or two. That said, I do love pumpkin. 

That obvious contradiction made me curious to find out the backstory of the flavors that make up pumpkin spice, their connection with the (actually delicious) pumpkin itself, and why everyone around me goes crazy about the pumpkin spice latte year after year.

First Origins

It all started with The Great Pumpkin Route, the name given to the path followed by those trading a rare and mostly sour-tasting spice found in northern Mongolia with people across the Arab region. 

When Persian merchants decided to add the sweeter and milder cinnamon to the unpalatable pumpkin spice (a decision we can still thank them for today), the game changed for good. 

American Debut

sweet, cake, sauce, pastry, pie
Erica Coulter

It's said that American colonists indulging in Thanksgiving festivities would open up the pumpkins and fill the insides with spices, milk and honey, which may have been the precursor to the modern pumpkin pie.

In 1796, in what has since been named America's first cookbook, Amelia Simmons published a recipe for "pompkin pudding," which referred to a sort of pie with stewed pumpkin, nutmeg and ginger.

How We Know the Spice

Several generations later, we can thank McCormick for the first creation of a packaged tin of "Pumpkin Pie Spice" in the 1950s, which included cinnamon, nutmeg and clove (but not actually any pumpkin). It took on the job of perfectly complementing the pumpkin itself in any type of pumpkin treat a person might desire to make.

Everyone's Obsession

coffee, milk, cappuccino, espresso, cream, mocha, sweet, chocolate, hot chocolate
Sydney Gabel

Despite the rise in popularity of pumpkin spice throughout the second half of the 20th century, it's unlikely anyone could have predicted the hype that has more recently taken place, as a direct result of the famous (read: infamous?) PSL: the Pumpkin Spice Latté.

Basic white girls aside, within a few days after its inception, Peter Dukes, director of espresso Americas for Starbucks, knew the company had found gold. The original recipe? Pumpkin spice sauce with cinnamon, clove, ginger and nutmeg, handcrafted with espresso and steamed milk and topped off with whipped cream and a dash of pumpkin pie topping.

coffee, cappuccino, espresso, milk, tea, indian tea, cream, mocha
Photo by Lindsey Law

Thanks to the fruitful brainstorming and tasting session in Starbucks' "Liquid Lab" in 2003 that gave way to the above formula, we can all ring in the fall each year with what Dukes has referred to as a "harbinger of the season." 

The recipe remained unchanged for 11 years, until Starbucks decided in 2015 to add in actual pumpkin, most likely as a response to skeptics looking for the real deal. The caramel coloring was removed last year as well, but Dukes said, speaking to the hearts of all PSL devotees, "It's still the fall-inspired drink Starbucks customers have loved all along."

Why We All Love It

pretzel, pastry, salt, sweet, bagel, doughnut, bread
Caitlin Shoemaker

Whether it's the PSL craze or just the latest addition to an endless list of pumpkin-flavored products, from Pop-Tarts to beers to donuts, the fall flavor's history may actually be part of the reason for the obsession. 

According to Cindy Ott, professor of American Studies at St. Louis University and author of the book Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, our pumpkin obsession is linked to nostalgia for our country's rural past, which people often romanticize (even if they don't actually want to move out to the country).

When and Where to Find It

coffee, chocolate, cream, milk, cappuccino
Robert Wehrli

Even though it may seem as if the school year has just barely started, the PSL returned nationwide to Dunkin' Donuts on August 29 and the esteemed Starbucks version came back on September 6. This year also marks a triumphant return to the pumpkin scene for McDonald's (after three years sans-PSL), which released the McCafé Pumpkin Spice Latte on August 31. 

If you're like me and you love pumpkin, but not so much a pumpkin spice latte, that probably just means you don't enjoy cinnamon, nutmeg and clove with your espresso – save that explanation the next time you're called out for indulging on a pumpkin muffin and turning down everyone else's beloved PSL.