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The Delightful Stories Behind Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Apple Cider, and More of Your Favorite Fall Treats

Learn the quirky (and delicious) histories behind some of your favorite fall treats, plus where to find them.

As autumn’s chill sets in, the air fills with the spicy scents of cinnamon, apple, and pumpkin, flavoring foods—from drinks to desserts to candies—that go hand in hand with smoky campfires, woolen mittens, and tumbling leaves. As familiar as they are, however, their origin stories are not so recognizable. Pumpkin beer is not a modern-day fad. Caramel apples were a plan B. And apple pie isn’t as American as the saying goes. And here’s a whopper: There are super popular fall foods that you might not be familiar with. So let’s take a look at fall’s most favorite foods (familiar or not), the stories behind them—and the best places to sample them.

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Apple Cider Donuts

If you’re in New England, nothing says more about the arrival of fall than an apple cider donut dipped into a steaming cup of apple cider. Swirling with the spicy flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon, and apple, dusted with cinnamon sugar, these fluffy, cakey, fried pieces of heaven have long beaconed fall. We don’t know exactly who invented the first apple cider donut, but most sources point to the early American colonies. People back then, lacking freezers, spent their falls butchering meat in advance of the long, cold winters. They fried up the resulting animal fat with freshly picked apples and—voilà—apple cider donuts.

They remained essentially a New England treat until the 1950s, when Doughnut Corporation of America, the company responsible for doughnut’s widespread popularity, introduced them as part of their annual fall campaign—and it worked. Today, orchards across the country have their secret family recipes.

That said, the best apple cider donuts still reign in New England. Try Russell Orchards in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where you can watch doughnuts being made from fresh ingredients—including cider made from the farm’s own apples—then fried and tossed into your waiting paper bag.

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Candy Corn

Either you love them or you hate them, those waxy, sugary, corn-kernel-shaped pieces of melocreme colored in the hues of fall. The first candy corn appeared on the scene in the 1880s, when George Menninger, who worked at the Wunderle Candy Corporation in Pennsylvania, mixed together corn syrup, sugar, and gelatin. He dyed separate batches in different colors, pouring them into layers to achieve the multi-colored look. After the candies hardened, a thin waxy coat of edible wax was brushed on.

His objective wasn’t a Halloween treat but an agricultural one—candies in the shapes of pumpkins, turnips, and other agricultural products, in addition to corn, to be marketed to farm kids year-round. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when Halloween became a “thing,” that candy corn fell into its natural autumn place.

You can find candy corn—in a variety of colors and flavors, including caramel, birthday cake, and turkey dinner—at supermarkets and candy stores everywhere, but go to the source. They are produced by Ferrara Candy Company (a subsidiary of Brach’s), and while you can’t tour the factory, you can visit the on-site factory outlet near Chicago (7301 W. Harrison Street, Forest Park, IL), where you can sample to your heart’s content.

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Pumpkin Beer

Pumpkins, of course, have been around for thousands of years. But who was the first person to introduce them into their brew? Surprisingly, pumpkin beer was for centuries the most common beer in early America—and not because it was a nostalgic way of heralding fall. Instead, it was practical. At a time when valuable grains were better used in bread and cakes, brew masters learned they could mash and ferment pumpkin to use instead of malt—and the pumpkin recipes swirled. There was even a song heralding pumpkin alcohol, that went something like this: “For we can make liquor, to sweeten our lips / Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-tree chips.”

Over the years, pumpkin beer went out of fashion as wheat and barley became more attainable, and pumpkins were slowly phased out—only to make their victorious return in the eighties. Inspired by George Washington’s foray into brewing pumpkin beer, Buffalo Bill’s Brewery of Hayward, California, was the first to bring the pumpkins back. Sadly, they’ve recently gone out of business, but many different breweries carry on the tradition today (though beware not everyone uses real pumpkin). One of the best is Schafly, St. Louis’s largest craft brewery, which filters pounds of fresh pumpkin through cinnamon, clove, and other spices. The brewery is closed to tours, but you can stop by the brewpub in St. Louis and try it on tap.

 

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Pumpkin Spice Lattes

You can’t go anywhere in the fall these days without bumping into a PSL—Starbucks’ sugary, spicy pumpkin spiced latte (they trademarked the acronym PSL in 2013). The funny thing is, the PSL almost didn’t happen. About 20 years ago, when execs were conjuring it up, some felt the drink was too sweet, overwhelming the coffee flavor. They went ahead anyway. Although it contains 26 ingredients, at first it had no real pumpkin (it was colored orange with artificial dye), but a dose of hot squash was added in 2015.

Starbucks is the obvious go-to for PSL (they sell more than 20 million a year, after all), though Dunkin’ offers a good plan B. That said, neighborhood cafes and coffee shops everywhere are picking up on the trend. Try 8th and Roast, a sustainable coffee shop that’s making waves in Nashville with straight-from-the-source coffee and super creative drinks: They’ve been known to feature lattes inspired by all kinds of warm autumn goodness, including sweet potatoes and maple brown butter.

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Caramel Apples

The bright idea of dipping apples into candy is said to have started with William W. Kolb, a veteran Newark candy maker who first swirled apples into red cinnamon candy in 1908, taking fairs and festivals by storm. From there, it was a small jump to plunge apples into caramel—a feat conducted by a Kraft foods employee in the 1950s. The story goes, the company had a ton of leftover caramels after Halloween, and after a bit of thought, confectioner Dan Walker melted them down and added apples. At first, they were all made by hand, though the job of caramel-apple-makers was made much easier in 1960, when Vito Raimondi of Chicago, Illinois, patented the first automated caramel apple machine.

You can find caramel apples at any boardwalk or county fair, but one special place is Apples of Eden in Greendale, Wisconsin. The small-batch caramel apples at this sweet shop aren’t any old caramel apples. They’re softball-sized Granny Smiths dunked in heaping, gooey caramel, big enough to share—if you wish. They also offer other flavors, including S’more, harvest (caramel with dried cranberries, blueberries, and dark chocolate), and The Dream (ribbons of milk, white and dark chocolate, and Heath bar).

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Apple Pie

Here’s an intriguing fact—apple pie, that all-American dessert equated with Mickey Mouse, baseball, and rock ’n’ roll—is more European than American. Apples aren’t even indigenous to the United States. Neither are its main spices, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It’s believed the recipe originated as early as 1390 in England, with French, Dutch, and Arab influences (the Dutch brought the spices from Sri Lanka and Indonesia). Settlers carried the know-how (and apple seeds) with them to the New World, and apple pie quickly caught on, becoming a mainstay at fall harvest tables. America’s first cookbook, American Cookery, published in 1796, includes two recipes of the “uniquely American” dish. By the 20th century, apple pie was firmly entrenched in American culture. A 1928 New York Times article described the homemaking abilities of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover as “as American as apple pie.” And during World War II, soldiers proclaimed they were fighting for “mom and apple pie.”

Washington State is famous for its apples, so of course, they make amazing apple pies. Try A La Mode in Seattle, beloved for its French apple pie, using local Granny Smiths. On the other side of the country, the pies at Dangerously Delicious Pies in Baltimore are the closest you’ll get to grandma’s baking; their apple pie is the most requested pie of all time, though the apple crumb pie, topped with oats, brown sugar, and butter, isn’t far behind.

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Pan de Muerto

Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead on November 1-2—a time to remember their ancestors. Food is always part of the commemoration, with pan de muerto being the most iconic. “Bread of the dead” is a sweet bread, sometimes flavored with orange zest or orange blossom water (or something else that relates to the dead), sometimes topped with sugar or cinnamon (which can be dyed red). It’s served best alongside a cup of hot chocolate, the perfect antidote to the autumn chill.

Most people today don’t remember where pan de muerto came from. We have to go back 500 years to when the Spanish first arrived in North America and became mortified by the local tradition of human sacrifice to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. They introduced a wheat bread topped with red dye to be used as an offering instead. Today, the bread comes in many forms, with the history more or less forgotten—though most Mexicans eat it on the Day of the Dead.

Bedoy’s Bakery in San Antonio is one of the nation’s best panaderias to order your bread of the dead. In business for over 60 years, its pan de muerto comes in many different sizes and flavors—including some shaped like figurines. San Diego also pulls out all the stops for Dia del Muerto; go to La Concha Bakery for some of the best pan de muerto.

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Mooncakes

Big, sweet, dense pastries filled with red beans, sesames, or lotus seed paste, often stuffed with one or more egg yolks—and as round as the moon—herald the arrival of the Mid-Autumn Festival in China and other Asian countries. The celebration kicks off on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, as it has for 3,000-plus years. That many years ago, during the Shang Dynasty, mooncakes were first served in the royal palace. Since then, people have gathered for dinners, lit paper lanterns, worshipped the moon—and presented mooncakes to friends, neighbors, co-workers, family, and employees. Mooncakes are baked golden brown and molded or stamped on top with the name of the filling (in Chinese, of course). More recently, they’ve even been filled with ice cream and tiramisu (and alcoholic infusion). But one thing remains the same: They are cut like a cake, and no matter how small, are shared with others.

Phoenix Bakery in LA’s Chinatown has been making mooncakes for more than 80 years, using techniques handed down for generations. Each mooncake is hand stamped with duck egg yolk, then cooked in a 15-foot-wide oven.

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Khoresht Fesenjan

While apples get all the love in fall, let’s not forget that pomegranates are a fabulous fall fruit as well—something that hasn’t slipped by the Persians. The sweet, round, leathery-skinned fruit with its ruby-red seeds plays an important role not only in Persian cuisine, but also in its literature, history, and culture. Indeed, in ancient Persian culture, pomegranates symbolized fertility. The pomegranate arrived in the Western world when Spaniards introduced the tree to California in the 18th century. Today, the plethora of pomegranates produced in the U.S. come from California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Persians have long integrated pomegranates into their fall menus—including Khoresht Fesenjan, a creamy Persian chicken or lamb extravaganza with walnut and pomegranate sauce, served over saffron rice. Most Persians cook it at home, using their own family recipes, but Shamshiri Grill in Los Angeles offers a good alternative.

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Apple Cider

Of all fall delights, apple cider probably embraces the essence of fall the most across America. But it’s not originally an American beverage. This sweet—and yes, sometimes boozy— juice dates back 2,000 years or more, to the British Islands. There, the Romans in 55 b.c. found the locals fermenting cider from native crabapples. Soon, cider spread throughout the Roman Empire; it was used to pay tithes and rents.

Cider first arrived on American shores just nine years after the first landing at Plymouth in 1620. Europeans planted apple trees in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and in those early days, cider was the most common drink, since the water was not safe (and grains and barley hard to grow in that harsh climate). Granted, it was boozier than its modern-day counterpart—a necessity, making it safe to drink (though kids had a less-alcoholic version called applekin).

Today, the best apple cider comes from the source, with Washington State topping the list of U.S. apple growers (69%), followed by New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California. Sample the fresh, sweet juice at Curran Apple Orchard in the city of University Place near Tacoma. Better yet, try your hand at pressing your own apples into cider at the orchard’s annual Cider Squeeze.

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