A Sign of the Seasons Changing–

The days grow shorter, the big leaf maple trees start to shed their leaves and the rains start to come more frequently, hallmarks of fall in Oregon. Another early indicator that fall is approaching is the arrival of the contentious pumpkin spice latte (PSL). Why contentious? While some love the flavor combination, others have an intense opposition with the seasonal situation because it comes too early each year. This year the PSL launched before September, on August 25. This is the earliest date that they have released the seasonal drink since its launch in 2003. The formula by mega-brand Starbucks has changed once; starting in 2015 Starbucks added pumpkin puree in the mix and did away with artificial coloring. At first, it may sound off-putting that there was no pumpkin in the PSL but most items you have consumed that are pumpkin flavored contain pumpkin spices rather than pumpkin. This popular drink is a combination of a few ingredients, which have unique origins. Let us find more of their agriculture origins, going from the largest to smallest components of the PSL.                                                       

Milk

Milk is old, very old. Dating back over 10,000 years ago when the domestication of cattle sheep and goats began in the Middle East. The journey of what you see in the refrigerator section today at your local grocery store has only existed for a couple generations. Early cattle herders had to convert milk into things like cheese and yogurt through fermentation. The fermentation process lowered the lactose levels that existed in milk making it more digestible and longer lasting. It was not until nearly 5,000 years later that the lactase enzyme emerged to create a genetic mutation allowing milk to be a part of diets in that part of the globe. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers brought cattle over to New England area and by the end of that century cattle made it out west. Eventually in the later 1800’s as the industrial movement happened a great migration from rural to urban living took place. Technology, in the way of pasteurization, caught up this movement of people and milk could be made more safe and stay fresh longer. With the invention of refrigeration and refrigerated transportation, the life of milk was extended further. Annually Starbucks uses an estimated 160 million gallons of milk, the first and most prevalent ingredient.

Sugar

The juice being extracted from sugar cane.

While there are plenty of sweeteners, sugar reigns supreme. In its natural form, sugar cane is a tall stalky plant that looks like a thinner version of a bamboo plant. Cut it open and you will see a white, fibrous and moist cross section with a sweet juice that makes for a great snack. Originally found on the tropical island of New Guinea the stalks made their way through trade and can be found growing in many tropical climates. Crystalized sugar like the kind we add to drinks or bake with was developed in India in the year 350. Today, the average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar a year and each 16-ounce PSL has 50 grams of sugar.

Coffee

The cherries of the coffee tree.

Being a coffee enthusiast, I not only saw how coffee beans grow when I lived in South America but also slung drinks in a past life as a barista. I could go on and on about coffee because there is a lot to know; different growing regions, differences between the two types of beans, how it’s harvested and the economics coffee plays in the word. Let us keep it simple and talk about the history though. According to legend, the origins of coffee begin where all other things do, as it is the cradle of life, Ethiopia. A goat herder by the name of Kaldi noticed his goats had increased energy after eating red berries from a bush and would not sleep at night. Kaldi then took the berries to a local monastery where the religious leader made a drink that kept him awake for long hours of prayer. Fast forward to the mid 1500’s where coffee would begin to play a significance in Turkish culture. In Turkey a new way of consuming coffee was born: grind the dried roasted beans into a fine powder and steep it in water. Coffee would continue to spread from there and become available globally. What made American’s choose coffee over tea? Taxes. In 1773 a tea tax made American’s find alternatives to get their caffeine fix. A trend that still holds today with 64 percent of American’s drinking coffee, according to the National Coffee Association.

Pumpkin

Coming from the same family that includes cucumbers, melons, and watermelons this squash is technically a fruit. Pumpkins thrive in warm, humid climates (but have no problem growing in Oregon as well) coming originally came from Central and South America but are grown on every continent minus Antarctica. In the 16th century, they made their way over to Europe, used commonly as pig feed. Eventually pumpkins made their way to into the stomachs of people all around the world—from soups to pies and ravioli. In the United States, we use pumpkins as a fixture of fall for Halloween Jack-o’-lanterns and Pumpkin Spice Lattes. Popular at Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie, did not become a dessert until 1796.

Spices

The ‘spice’ in Pumpkin Spice Latte’s come from a combination cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The same combination that exists if you were to make a pumpkin pie. Let us explore the unique origins for each of these spices.

Clove

Characterized by its hard stem and flowering bud on top that makes it look like a small nail when dried. Mentioned in literature as early as 206 BC cloves evolved to play a major part of the European Spice trade and becoming one of the most important spices in the world causing the Dutch and Spanish to fight over control of the trade. To saying wars have been fought over cloves would hold some truth. Today it is readily available for all your seasoning needs. In India, occasionally cloves see use as a breath freshener.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg comes from an evergreen tree, which produces a fruit. The fruit ends up producing a red, lacy covering, known as mace after it dries. The seed within that kernel is nutmeg! The origins of nutmeg comes from Indonesia and used in Ancient Rome as well. Similar to cloves, control for trade led to fighting as the Portuguese had taken control of the nutmeg trade by the mid-16th century. Control of the trade made it’s way to the British and they stared plantations all over the Caribbean and other tropical locations. Today, nearly 40 percent of all nutmeg and mace comes from Grenada.  

Cinnamon

Known as the “fragrant bark”, cinnamon was only afforded by the wealthy at one time but now is available to all, as it has become a kitchen staple. This spice has its origins in Sri Lanka and similar to nutmeg comes from a type of evergreen. To harvest the outer bark must first be scraped off because the bark to make cinnamon comes from the inner bark. Two main types of cinnamon exist: Ceylon and Cassia. Ceylon is known as the ‘true’ cinnamon as it comes from Sri Lanka and has a milder flavor, with a single spiral. Cassia comes from Southeast Asia and has a stronger more bitter/woodier flavor profile. While much of the world uses the spice in sweet dishes like cakes and cookies in India, it is used in garam masala spice mixes. While cinnamon is good for your health and said to lower blood pressure too much can act as a throat irritant, do not go eating it by the spoonful!

That’s it! All these ingredients need to come together to make the unofficial drink of fall, think about that the next time you or a friend enjoys a Pumpkin Spice Latte! The historical information for the ingredients featured in this post came from The Story of Food.

-Casey Blake, Washington County Programs Coordinator