Once upon a time we welcomed the change of season, especially the advent of autumn, for the sudden chill in the air that was still warmed by a golden sun, the easing of leaves from green to gold against a brilliant blue sky, and the joy of bundling up with opaque tights, great jackets, and fabulous scarves–the suggestions that we are ready to stave off winter’s blast without yet actually having to face nasty weather.
And then there is the food. The passage of each season brings a new menu: clementines are a bright note in sleepy winter akin to the flash of a cardinal on a snowy tree branch; as the world wakes in spring we look for the buds on the trees and sunny asparagus on our plates; in summer we anticipate the huge bounty of garden goodness that culminates in the arrival of Queen Tomato; then with fall we look forward to an orchard outing to enjoy that crisp air, play farmer, and pick so many apples that, once home, we are forced to condescend into baking crisps and cobblers until the kitchen moans under the weight of all the oatmeal-ensconced goodness.
Welcoming those seasonal treats–fruits of the earth still very much tied to the earth–represent more innocent times before a relatively recent development that flavors our autumn in a much different, even sinister, character. Having already co-opted every conceivable holiday as a festival of consumption, Big Business has conspired to marketize the very change of seasons. Building on historic traditions of identifying favorite foods at particular holidays–cranberries at Christmas, latkes for Hanukkah, green bean casserole whenever two or three Lutherans gather–, the scourge of Pumpkinspiceitis is now foisted upon us.
Pumpkinspiceitis derives from a regrettable, but historic, inclusion of pumpkin pie on the Thanksgiving table. It is a curious phenomenon: pumpkin pie. As a pie, it’s an inferior dessert; as a pumpkin product, just a clever way to get rid of something easy to grow but which no one really wants to eat. (Like most of the Thanksgiving table, it’s also just bad history.) Even if you think you like pumpkin, be honest: it’s just taking the place of something else that you know you’d rather have. To make this horrid squash edible, all kinds of stuff is stirred in and gooped on top to actually cover the taste of the pumpkin. More desperate than any other garden spawn (slightly worse than zucchini, but maybe not as hopeless as rhubarb), this homely orange orb demands not just special treatment to hide its natural flavor but the particular concoction conjured up by some set of Weird Sisters, probably in the nineteenth century. Their brew of ordinary spices–cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves–has achieved iconic status due to the ubiquity with which it is used to mask the natural grossness of this “dessert.”
With a name as creative as its inspiration is delicious, “Pumpkin Pie Spice” represents all that’s bad about home cooking, and by extension, food consumption, in America–which makes it especially sad and ironic to bring to the table on a holiday that is so completely American. The blind ease with which the home cook grabs for the inevitable plastic jar, purchased years before, used annually but never between December and October, is likewise exemplary of the oh-you-shouldn’t-have-bothered ideal that is rampant across the country. The idea of a pre-mixed spice blend is not so bad in and of itself, as we see from a very, very long tradition of Indian garam masala and Chinese Five Spice. Traditionally, among those cultures each household will have its own version, ground to suit the family’s custom and taste. The ‘merkan equivalent is only home-made by DIY-types with obsessive Pinterest habits. Pre-packaged and sold at the grocery store, Pumpkin Pie Spice is the Hamburger Helper of baking–except that Hamburger Helper is consumed year-round, and Pumpkin Pie spice had a very narrow window of relevance, confined to Thanksgiving weekend, and therefore is even dumber.
At least that was the case before the rise of Big Pumpkin (not to be confused with the Great Pumpkin). At least ten years ago, some genius at some mega spice dealer (we’re guessing a certain Fortune 1000 company with a penchant for red lids) figured out a way to foist their product on the American public and increase their market share by popularizing a product that was irrelevant for fifty-one weeks of the year. Their target? A product of great popularity among Americans, and which many Americans are more than happy to crap up with flavor additions rather than enjoy the actual flavor of what they’re consuming: coffee. With the help of some genius at some mega coffee dealer (we’re guessing a certain Fortune 500 company with a penchant for a nippleless, two-tailed mermaid), they found their opportunity, and convinced the masses that their lattes were not good enough as lattes, but ought to be made to taste like dessert, and not just dessert but the lowliest of desserts, pie; and not just any old pie, but a pie so stupid it is made out of mushy vegetables. And so it was, and so it is, that Pumpkin Pie Spice lattes, introduced in 2003, are now welcomed by crazed Starbuckians the way the solstice must have been greeted by the ancients at Stonehenge: with religious reverence and enthralled enthusiasm, evidence that the gods have not yet abandoned the world (although to the rest of us, this flakey excuse for a coffee drink is just one more proof of our fallen state).
Pumpkin Pie lattes might not have been such a problem if the silliness around them had remained cloistered in Starbuckses. But their mind-boggling popularity has launched a whole new ridiculous enthusiasm for the “flavors of fall,” and this is really where we need to draw the line. Food should taste like itself. Spices and herbs are meant to draw out and complement the natural flavor of a thing, not disguise it–especially if the base flavor is something quite respectable. In the name of Taste, you must avoid, ignore, renounce and repudiate the following products, all of them evidence of the overreach of Big Pumpkin and foul offspring, the sinister seasoning:
If you’re not yet swooning from the madness, read on for our candidates for Worst Spawn of Big Pumpkin’s Evil:
Although Pumpkinspiceitis has caught the CDC unawares, wise men saw this nonsense coming a mile away–indeed centuries ago. Founding Father and Culinary Connoisseur Thomas Jefferson (a much more reliable T.J.) worried what would become of his nation, and left the following in manuscript form:
It is self-evident that not all flavor profiles are created equal; not all are endowed by their creators with honesty of expression and decency of marketing. Sadly, all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer sketchy food products and egregious marketing, while evils are sufferable in their cheapness and trendiness, than to right themselves by abolishing goofball flavors as they ought to, and just drink coffee that tastes like, you know, COFFEE.
This is not a tirade against the spices in Pumpkin Pie Spice. We, like Mr. Jefferson, want you to enjoy cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg (the last of which ought to be ground the moment before use, but you knew that, right?). But enjoy them where they belong: coffee cakes, cinnamon rolls, snickerdoodles, and stupid fruit desserts. (If you really, really feel compelled to eat trendily in October, you may have an apple cider donut but then, for Heaven’s sakes, pull yourself together.)
This does not address the matter of the pumpkin itself, which still has little use in the world. The following is the best we can do to offer semi-legitimate, but still pretty sketchy, uses for citrouille (French for “yukky apple of the dirty vine”):
And then there’s this, maybe the reason pumpkins exist at all: