In a year when I am blessed with an abundance of squash, it would be remiss on my part as a local foodie not to comment on the Pumpkin Spice phenomenon. The seasonal appearance of pumpkin spice harkens a time of harvest and thanksgiving. Except that it starts earlier each year. And with climate change, autumn is arriving later each year.
Pie is a perfectly wonderful use for an abundance of pumpkin and, like rhubarb, pumpkin takes well to sugar and spice. What would it take for you to eat a jack-o-lantern on Thanksgiving? In the spirit of the coming holiday season, here are my musings on all things pumpkin spice.
First, pumpkin spice does not include any pumpkin at all. It is remotely based on the combination of spices used to flavor a potentially bland pumpkin pie. However, modern pumpkin spice has grown far from the pumpkin vine. Consulting the recipe in the all-American cookbook: Better Homes and Gardens “New” Cookbook (the three-ring binder with red and white-checked cover) second printing 1969, pumpkin pie includes cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. Today, the first ingredient in most pumpkin spice foods is sugar. Additions to the foundational pumpkin pie spices include allspice, cardamom, vanilla, and in a world where food can never be hot enough, chili powder.
The commercialization of pumpkin pie spice points most certainly to Starbucks and the “PSL” (Pumpkin Spice Latte). The Starbucks website says of the PSL, “Our signature espresso and milk are highlighted by flavor notes of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove to create this incredible beverage that’s a fall favorite. Enjoy it topped with whipped cream and real pumpkin-pie spices.” While this is not an effort to deter enjoyment of all things pumpkin spice, the ingredients in a PSL are: “Milk, Pumpkin Spice Sauce [Sugar, Condensed Skim Milk, Pumpkin Puree, Contains 2% Or Less Of Fruit And Vegetable Juice For Color, Natural Flavors, Annatto, Salt, Potassium Sorbate], Brewed Espresso, Whipped Cream [Cream (Cream, Mono And Diglycerides, Carageenan), Vanilla Syrup (Sugar, Water, Natural Flavors, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid)], Pumpkin Spice Topping [Cinnamon, Ginger, Nutmeg, Clove, Sulfiting Agents].” As I said, PSL has fallen a long way from the organic pumpkin vine.
In an effort to offer complete pumpkin spice reporting, I tried a PSL prepared at the Starbucks in Cortez. I guess I was hoping for something tasting close to a Snickerdoodle or other spiced cookie. But all I could get was “cloyingly sweet,” a term I didn’t understand until I tried a PSL.
The pumpkin spice phenomenon goes way beyond food. It has become a way of living that evokes feelings of warmth, comfort, and love in a world where winter is always coming. An American version of Hygge (look it up). There are pumpkin spice scented candles and room fresheners. This odor used to be called “Olde Spice” or “Grandma’s Kitchen.” It is designed to conjure visions of pie and cookies baking in a kitchen furnished with avocado or harvest gold-colored appliances, successfully targeting the millennial market with no experience of these kitchens and whose real grandmothers’ kitchens are furnished with stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops.
There are also pumpkin-spice accessories such as autumn leaf-patterned kitchen towels, cornucopia salt and pepper shakers, and other tchotchkes that would have been found in the idealized 1970s grandma’s kitchen. These accessories certainly complement the 21st century kitchen dominated by an instant pot, small-batch canning setup, and fermentation crock.
To say nothing of the pumpkin spice meme that I think should be changed to pumpkin spice mean. These internet -ba sed quips can be very unkind to pumpkin spice aficionados, particularly white girls. As a white girl myself, I couldn’t help but pass on a meme that caught my fancy: How is Donald Trump like a pumpkin? Orange on the outside, hollow on the inside, and thrown out in November.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by how far a spice mix designed to make Cucurbita-based desserts palatable has permeated our culture. In these uncertain times, we all miss the comfort and kindness of our grandmother’s kitchen. Perhaps we could all spread a little PSL in our world – though make mine sugarfree, please.
Carolyn Dunmire cooks, eats, and writes in Cahone, Colo.