Pumpkin Spice: Meme, or American Love Story?
I have a confession to make: I’m an unabashed lover of all things pumpkin. Yep, I’m one of those people who count down to September 1st so they can enjoy an overpriced pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks – and I’m genuinely getting sad over the fact that the change of seasons means goodbye to pumpkin-flavored delights.
My adoration is far from unique. Every autumn, like clockwork, I watch my blog reader fill up with post after post from bloggers Instagramming photos of their first pumpkin latte of the year or sharing their new recipe for pumpkin pie or pumpkin chili or pumpkin fill-in-the-blank. The flavor has become so ubiquitous that I’ve even seen hipsters and coffee snobs complaining about its popularity. (That’s when you know it’s made it big.) “Has pumpkin crossed the line from foodstuff to meme?” asks Wall Street Journal blogger Charles Passy.
But even a proud pumpkin lover like me has to admit that the pumpkin craze has been crazier than ever this year. Last fall, there were 37 pumpkin-flavored limited-time menu items at the top 250 restaurant chains. This fall, there are 79. And in perhaps the wackiest display of pumpkin mania, Pringles – of all things – released pumpkin-pie-spice potato chips for the holidays. “Pumpkin is the new bacon,” proclaimed New York magazine in October.
So what is the big deal about this autumn staple? I often say that I love it because of the flavor, since I really do love it. I got giddy when I saw that my mom had basically cleaned Aldi out of all of their substantial selection of pumpkin-flavored offerings this year. But is there more to it than taste? Have I fallen prey to the clever machinations of marketing firms?
The answer, as you might suspect, is more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.”
Pumpkin as History
In his opinion piece, Passy complains about the “meme-ification” of the pumpkin, citing pumpkin-flavored vodka is one example. But the pumpkin – yes, even pumpkin-flavored alcohol – actually has a long history in America. Laugh at pumpkin beer all you want, but the truth is that it's been around since colonial times. “Pumpkin beer was used when there was no barley,” says Cindy Ott, author of Pumpkin: the Curious History of an American Icon, in a recent interview with NPR. “[If] there was no wheat for bread, they used pumpkin [for] bread…pumpkin was considered food of desperate [times].”
Our times aren’t exactly desperate, it’s true (“fiscal cliff” and Mayan doomsday fears notwithstanding). But many of us still crave the sweet simplicity suggested by the charming orange squash. "It's a vegetable that represents this idyllic farm life, and the best sort of moral virtue,” Ott says. “Americans have become attached to that.”
Pumpkin as Ritual
The fact that pumpkin permeates our history is an important one. But even more important in its popularity is pumpkin’s status as a seasonal ritual. The holiday with which pumpkin pie is most strongly associated – Thanksgiving – is the holiday perhaps more steeped in ritual and tradition than any other. Thanksgiving usually brings up warm memories, so over the years, pumpkins have come to be thought of with near-reverent sentimentality.
That sentimentality was at the forefront in the answers to my informal Facebook poll: why, I asked, do you love pumpkin? The answers varied, but there was a common theme:
"Nostalgia!" my friend Mike, who now lives in Chicago, answered immediately. "Pumpkin stuff reminds me of the candles my mom burns, and of cozy falls back in Michigan."
"It reminds me of Thanksgiving dinner," answered my friend Hannah. Specifically, it reminds her of what is, in my opinion, the best part of Thanksgiving dinner: the part when the stress is over and, bellies full, everyone starts feeling more relaxed.
In recent years, pumpkin has become somewhat of a ritual in itself. For me, pumpkin spice lattes means that autumn is coming. Their September 1st release date means that the weather is often sweltering, but regardless of the weather, that first steaming sip is the signal that tells me my favorite season is just around the corner.
For my friend Katie, currently in grad school in Ireland, pumpkin spice is a little slice of home. Unlike Michigan, Dublin’s weather is cool and wet as a rule. “I have to buy holiday lattes,” Katie says, “to regulate my internal sense of holiday.”
Pumpkin (Spice) as a Drug
Partly thanks to Thanksgiving, pumpkin has become embedded in our cultural consciousness as something that brings warm memories to mind. But what about people who don’t have the greatest holiday memories? According to culinary historian Kathleen Wall, that shouldn’t ruin their enjoyment of pumpkin-spiced treats: “Nutmeg,” she says, “really does have chemical constituents that make you feel good.”
I see what you did there.
Nutmeg is, of course, is the main spice in your little container of pumpkin pie spice. It’s what makes your pumpkin spice latte taste like autumn even without the presence of actual pumpkin. (Sorry to disappoint, but the “pumpkin” in your Starbucks is actually “pumpkin-flavored syrup.”) And Wall is right – it genuinely makes you feel good. Like, really good.
This delightful spice was, according to culinary historian Michael Krondl, “the iPhone of the 1600s.” Popular amongst the wealthy, nutmeg was used to warm the body and fight off infections.
Oh, and it’s also a hallucinogen.
Say what-meg? (Bad joke. Blame my perennially-pun-slinging father.)
Okay, so you’re not going to get some crazy high from a slice of pie or one latte – even if it’s a Venti. But nutmeg does contain myristicin, a psychoactive element that’s similar to amphetamine and ecstacy. Nutmeg has been shown “to mediate visual, auditory, tactile, and kinaesthetic hallucinations (notably the sensation of floating).”
So, while I’ve never experienced a nutmeg-induced hallucination (that I’m aware of, anyway) maybe my claims of being addicted to pumpkin spice are more accurate than I knew!
Pumpkin as a Love Story
All of this, of course, does not in any way refute that big corporations are using the pumpkin craze to rake in a handsome profit. After all, it’s pretty hard to refute that the pumpkin’s popularity has grown as a direct result of Starbucks introducing its now-famous latte in 2001.
But even so, I’m having a hard time thinking of it as a bad thing. Supply has to keep up with demand, after all – and demand has been rising. We love pumpkins…and so what? It’s completely normal to associate certain flavors with certain seasons; it’s no reason to cause a fuss. (I have yet to hear of anyone starting a Christmastime peppermint boycott.) The history of pumpkins in America is long and rich, and they have a near-universal tendency to bring up good memories. What’s wrong with that? Besides, anything that contributes to cozy autumn treats – and good beer – is okay by me. Pumpkins are popular, yes, but hardly the stuff of memes.
Pumpkin spice Pringles may be a bridge too far, but I’m not going to let that ruin my latte.