Even pumpkin spice fans like me can get annoyed by the marketing of pumpkin spice-flavored everything (that pumpkin spice kitty litter exists means we’ve gone well beyond peak pumpkin spice), but it’s hard to deny the appeal.

According to Kantha Shelke, a food scientist, our favorite fall flavor is all about nostalgia. Originally sold in the ’50s and ’60s as “pumpkin spice” or “pumpkin pie spice” by baking companies like McCormick, this blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves calls to mind warm and comforting autumn memories.

Here in North America, “most people associate the flavors of pumpkin spice with Thanksgiving, the holidays, good times that are very comforting,” Shelke said. “Whether it’s in an ice cream or whether it’s in a hot coffee, it takes them instantly back to a time that was fun, that was nostalgic, that was great.”

The power of pumpkin spice comes from the smell, rather than the taste. As we learned in elementary school, our tongues can taste only four or five flavors: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and savory (umami). “Everything else we call ‘flavor’ is really ‘odor,’ writes Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses.

And because smell and emotion are deeply intertwined in our memory—to the point that some research suggests that a smell can become an emotion—something as aromatic as pumpkin spice evokes strong feelings … for better or worse.

In her book Wearing God, theologian and writer Lauren F. Winner explores smell as one of the overlooked ways the Bible depicts us meeting God. Smell is “disparaged in much Western thought”—during ...

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