The weird, true story of how pumpkin-spice everything conquered America.

In 2014, Americans spent over $360 million on pumpkin-flavored products — and that number just keeps going up.

Get ready. GIF from "The Muppets."

Granted, most people only indulge in one pumpkin-spice something per year, and half the time it doesn't even include real pumpkin in it. But love it or hate it — because when it comes to pumpkin spice, it's pretty polarizing — it's hard to deny that pumpkin is the official flavor of fall.


But back in the 16th century, early American settlers weren't exactly looking forward to the pumpkin-flavored everythings.

Native Americans relied on the ribbed orange squash in numerous ways to get them through the winter. So when the European settlers showed up, they followed suit.

Historical footage of colonial Americans settlers, upon first discovering pumpkins. GIF from TY Interwebs/YouTube.

Of course, they'd never seen pumpkins before, but pumpkins were plentiful and also full of starchy sugars, so that seemed like a win. Plus, pumpkins lasted for a long time, and when the other crops ran out, they could use them as beer or as meaty nutrients in their stews. As author Cindy Ott explained in her book, "Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon," "When people had no apples for pies, barley for beer, or meat for supper, they could substitute the prolific pumpkin."

That doesn't mean that any of this pumpkin stuff was good though. Back then, without the spices that we know and love today, pumpkin was just kind of a bland way to get calories into your body.

Historical footage of colonial Americans after realizing that the bland pumpkin was pretty much their most consistent source of food. GIF from San Diego Zoo.

By the early 19th century, the pumpkin craze had become a relic of hearty American nostalgia, or so we thought.

Because pumpkins weren't very tasty, they started to go out of style. And as American prosperity grew, people began to look down on pumpkins as a "last resort" food, something their poor ancestors ate to rough it through the hard times.

But then, in the 1950s, pumpkin pie spice entered the scene.

The first known reference to pumpkin pie spice was published in The Washington Post in 1936. And shortly after World War II, the McCormick spice company began to advertise a pumpkin pie spice mixture as a kind of comfort food, offering a pre-mixed, pre-packaged combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger.

Suddenly, pumpkin's venerable frontier reputation became desirable and delicious — even though it was really the spices and not the pumpkin itself that people were diggin'. (On the bright side, those spices did offer some additional health benefits, though.)

My mother always warned me that if I ate too much of something, I was going to turn into it. GIF from "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers."

And finally, the kicker: In 2003, the pumpkin spice latte burst onto the scene. That's when everything changed.

Basically, it's all Starbucks' fault. There were some other companies offering pumpkin spice coffees (and candles) as early as 1996, but the legendary PSL is what really kicked the trend into high gear. Starbucks was looking for another seasonal drink to compliment its popular winter holiday offerings, and although they tried several other options, there was just something about the pumpkin spice latte.

The limited availability certainly didn't hurt customer excitement. And while the PSL was an immediate hit, it really took off after the recession hit. "Pumpkin became recognized as part of the comfort food trend during the recession in 2008," said Suzy Badaracco of Culinary Tides in an interview with Vox.

Approximately 50% of the American population come August, when pumpkin spice season mysteriously smarts amid the oppressive summer heat. GIF from "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!"

Ott echoed this idea in her book, too. "Those ideas, about last resort and hard times and, ‘Throw the pumpkin in and take care of yourself and your family on your small plot of land,’ became symbols and stories of American survival," she wrote. "It’s these kind of associations that people are buying, and the associations are really positive and affirming."

In retrospect, it seems kind of silly that a once pervasive and annoying squash could become such a phenomenon.

When it comes to pumpkin in particular, there's also the added irony that a "flavor" that harkens back to colonial America and has such strong associations with "whiteness" actually has more to do with imported spices than with the bland squash of its namesake.

White people dancing for pumpkin flavor derived from spices taken from former British colonies. GIF from KXVO15 10:00 News/YouTube.

But this story isn't just the story of pumpkins. It's actually true for a lot of the foods we consider popular today.

For the vast majority of world history, the vast majority of people were very, very poor. The culinary treats that we recognize today were rarely delicacies; they were just what was available at a low cost to feed a lot of people.

Soups and stews like minestrone, gazpacho, and ratatouille, crops like rice and potatoes, bread and polenta, and even a lot of sausages only gained in popularity because they were the only options available, and people needed to eat.

Now, with more people rising out of poverty than ever before, these cultural touchstones of necessity are becoming commodities. Whether that's a good or bad thing is entirely up to your personal taste — kind of like that sweet Pumpkin Spice Latte.

For John Shults and Joy Morrow-Nulton, the COVID-19 pandemic brought more than just health threats and lockdown woes. For the two 95-year-olds, it also held something remarkable—another chance at romance.

Both Shults and Morrow-Nulton had been married twice and widowed twice, but they were determined to find love again. They met in May of 2019, brought together by Morrow-Nulton's 69-year-old son, John Morrow.

"She was cute, I'll tell you that," Shultz told the New York Times of their first meeting. "And she was smart and she had a delightful sense of humor. And she smiled at me."

Shultz asked her to lunch a few more times before it became crystal clear to Morrow-Nulton that he was on a mission to date her.

Keep Reading Show less

For John Shults and Joy Morrow-Nulton, the COVID-19 pandemic brought more than just health threats and lockdown woes. For the two 95-year-olds, it also held something remarkable—another chance at romance.

Both Shults and Morrow-Nulton had been married twice and widowed twice, but they were determined to find love again. They met in May of 2019, brought together by Morrow-Nulton's 69-year-old son, John Morrow.

"She was cute, I'll tell you that," Shultz told the New York Times of their first meeting. "And she was smart and she had a delightful sense of humor. And she smiled at me."

Shultz asked her to lunch a few more times before it became crystal clear to Morrow-Nulton that he was on a mission to date her.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."