Once the afternoon breeze begins to cool and the leaves begin to lose their green, we know that fall is upon us. As the season of corn mazes, fluffy sweaters, and endless raking settles in, the inevitable arrival of its closest companion can’t be far behind. After all, what is autumn without the great pumpkin?

An Origin Story

Pumpkins are native to North and Central America and have been growing here for an estimated 10,000 years, making them a quintessentially "American" ingredient. They are also a fall food by nature, found at their best in October harvest month. Indigenous peoples across the continent initially prepared them in a savory fashion, letting their flesh star in soups, roasts, and jerky-like strips for the winter. After the arrival of colonizers, consumption of the pumpkin was quickly spread to the growing European population, but the gourd wasn't considered particularly outstanding just yet. It was a frequent resident of most pantries—eaten often, but not exactly reverently.

A Star is Born

Pumpkins remained the unsung heroes of early American cuisine for several decades. They were prepared in the same fashion as other members of the gourd family with little distinction—until 1796, that is. When New England writer Amelia Simmons published American Cookerythe first cookbook in the United States produced by one of its own citizens, the earliest recipe for pumpkin pie was released. The recipe was not the cause of mass fanfare at the time of its creation, but it did pave the way for the gradual evolution and elevation of sweet and savory pumpkin dishes in the rural north, where pumpkin farms were most frequently found. By the time President Lincoln had established the fourth Thursday of November  asThanksgiving's official date in 1789, the pumpkin had become associated with bounty, nostalgia, and the “unproblematic” traditionalism of the northern states. Generations of Americans that had been raised on farmland began to long for the autumnal comfort of the pumpkin and the simpler times it represented amidst the harsh city life they’d transitioned to by the mid-1800s. As both an ingredient and a representation of ideals, the pumpkin was cementing itself in the American consciousness.

sweet, pie, cheese
Jocelyn Hsu

Then came the uptick in Irish immigration rates in the latter half of the 19th century, a period of mass flight spurred on by the Potato Famine. Halloween began steadily rising in popularity as the long-held Celtic traditions of the new arrivals were integrated into the annual festivities. Alongside the neighborhood parties and homemade costumes, the Irish practice of carving scary faces into turnips and potatoes to make Jack-O-Lanterns was transplanted onto the ubiquitous pumpkin and went mainstream in no time. The innovation saw families purchasing pumpkins not only for their kitchens, but for their front steps and windowsills as well. They became a subtle reminder, everywhere you looked, that it was indeed fall—and fall in the new era of the pumpkin, at that.

Pumpkins have become an invaluable aspect of autumnal celebrations in many ways. They’ve been sitting beside our cobweb-covered doors and baking in our ovens for nearly two centuries, and they’ve been a staple of North American cuisine for far longer than this country has been around. But, nowadays, the pumpkin has become so powerful that it’s spawned the mass production of goods that carry its name and yet contain no part of the squash itself. Indeed, it's the "pumpkin spice" phenomenon.

coffee, espresso, cappuccino, milk, mocha
Gabby Phi

From Pie to Pick-Me-Up

The concept of pumpkin spice has its origins in “pumpkin pie spice,” a 1930s marketing strategy that promised busy housewives an efficient, streamlined solution for filling the Thanksgiving dessert table. The all-in-one mixture, though slightly varying in composition depending on the manufacturer, was typically a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cardamom, and other spices that remain heavily associated with fall and coziness on their own. Their popularity as a medley, however, took off in 2003, when Starbucks released their riff on the relatively new "pumpkin spice latte," turning the drink—and its signature flavor profile—into national favorites.

Now surrounded by all things pumpkin spice, from bagels to cup noodles, some of us can be overwhelmed by society’s September-to-December pumpkin obsession. But, even though all of this pumpkin mania may feel a little excessive at times, the humble gourd has a long and beloved history of bringing fun, joy, and comfort to global citizens during the fall months. Sometimes, a simple-but-cozy pumpkin stew or a slice of classic pumpkin pie are all you need to bring a little bit of happiness to your own autumn days.