The crisp air and crunch of dead leaves beneath our feet signal the robust arrival of autumn and the holidays to come, but the outdoor environment is not the only indication of the changing seasons. Overtaking the senses with fragrant aromas, warmth and the sweet taste of spices, the powerful pumpkin flavor palette is an equally definitive symbol of the season’s atmosphere. Pumpkin spice lattes grace the chalkboards of every café, pumpkin-inspired sweets and treats line the aisles of grocery stores and pumpkin decorations adorn front porches and school classrooms alike. What is it about the pumpkin that makes it so enticing, comforting and resonant with our feelings for this special time of year: the deep days of autumn marked by waning sunlight and the approaching winter festivities?
Perhaps part of pumpkin’s prominence in the United States’ seasonal splendor is its locality. Although believed to have originated in Central America, pumpkins have long been grown as a crop in the United States (PBS, “History of Pumpkins and Recipe Round-Up” 10.25.2014). In the age of globalized food systems, we often forget that our food comes from our surrounding environment. Pumpkins offer an opportunity to reconnect with agricultural roots: Many families in the United States take an annual trip to the pumpkin patch each fall in order to select a hearty specimen for jack-o’-lanterns or pie from the tapestry of green vines and orange globes scattered over the ground. As we appreciate the nostalgia induced by pumpkin picking, it is important to undercut this warm, fuzzy feeling and consider the prevalence of squash in the diets and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples. Pumpkin was a crucial food source for Native inhabitants of North America due to its thick flesh and its function as one of the “three sisters”— the agroecological strategy of planting corn, beans and squash together to optimize growth and soil fertility (The Old Farmer’s Almanac, “The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, And Squash,” 10.17.2019).
For many, the tantalizing blend of spices that often accompanies any pumpkin-based product is the true signal of the season. Generally consisting of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves, the magical blend commercially sold as “pumpkin pie spice” tickles one’s tastebuds with a balance of sweet and spicy, inciting feelings of warmth and coziness (The Washington Post, “The origins of pumpkin spice and how it became the flavor of fall,” 09.15.2016). The versatility of this winning combo boasts success in commercial ventures, such as the wildly popular pumpkin spice latte, and in humble home kitchens—I personally adore filling the house with the smell of pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin muffins and, of course, pumpkin pie!