By Jay Reed
This article was originally published in the October/November 2023 issue of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI
I bet you thought this was going to be a column making fun of all things pumpkin spice. Or maybe you’re a spice jar half-full kind of person and had expectations of defending pumpkin spice’s honor by metaphorically painting its name on a water tower. Truth is, I did take a view in a previous issue that there might be too much pumpkin spice in our lives during the fall. Since then, I’ve made some observations.
One: I wasn’t wrong. There are a lot of things pumpkin spiced, and despite the mockery, they keep coming. However, many of them appear on the clearance aisle at the grocery store even before fall is over. It’s why I own a jar of pumpkin butter (spiced, of course).
Two: Feelings change. I realized later that I really didn’t have anything against pumpkin spice. Sure, there may be an excess of pumpkin-themed and fall-colored products available in the autumn months – hello, Harvest Thumbprint Cookies and Fall Leaf Tortilla Chips – but I have to believe Big Pumpkin has done their market research and deemed it a worthy gamble.
But I’m also interested in answering these questions for myself: What’s the deal with the abundance of “warming spices” during those cold-in-some-states-though-not-in-Mississippi months? What exactly are they? And if I eat them while standing outside watching the Christmas parade, am I actually going to warm up?
I hate to bore readers with lists, so if lists bore you, skip this paragraph and move on to the exciting details. But for those who like to see things in one place first, here’s a list of some common warming spices: ginger, allspice, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, cardamom, cumin, mace, turmeric, black pepper, cayenne, mustard, and horseradish. You might argue with one or two of those, or suggest a few additions, and that would be okay. We’re learning together here.
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As for the Christmas parade question, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes!” Admittedly, as the junior high band marches by in elf hats playing Jingle Bells, my peppermint hot chocolate might bring the same body heat as your chai latte, even though mint is a cooling herb. Generally speaking, however, warming spices do, to some degree, raise body temperature.
Fall is a big season for root vegetables, which happen to lend themselves well to these spices. Consider the dessert we disguise in the South as a Thanksgiving side dish: the infamous sweet potato casserole. Now try to imagine it without cinnamon. Pumpkin and butternut squash soup are also qualified candidates for a sprinkle of spices from the list. If roasted carrots aren’t orange enough for you, add some turmeric.
Cardamom used to be a mystery spice to me. Can’t say I’d ever heard of it till we moved to the Middle East, where we sometimes we had it in our rice, and almost daily in our tea alongside cloves and cinnamon. The tea was hot, we were hot, and we added warming spices. I’m sure there was a reason for that - perhaps if we warmed our insides we’d sweat and cool our outsides?
Same song, different verse for cumin. I recognized the flavor of it when we landed on the other side of the world but didn’t know the name. There we were told the spice that was in so many of the dishes we were learning to love was pronounced “kimoon” in the local dialect. So we made sure to bring back plenty the first time we came home for a visit, only to discover that “kimoon” was just “koomin” and was in every grocery store in America.
I didn’t realize ginger was spicy until I had my first Blenheim ginger ale. Even the lowest of their two spice levels packs more heat than my favorite airplane beverage. It will most definitely warm up the inside of your mouth.
In my own kitchen, I like a little cinnamon in my chili, in homemade barbecue rubs, on roasted nuts, and in granola (even if it comes within the apple pie spice mix.) And who doesn’t love a well-made, warm, gooey cinnamon roll?
As for mace, I’ve never had the pleasure of its acquaintance. I thought it was what the drum major used to direct the marching band, or what women used to carry in their purses. I’m sure it’s a lovely flavor; I pledge to try it the next time a bottle appears on the clearance aisle next to the pumpkin spice deodorant.