So there is a lot of discussion in the blogsphere and in the podcast media world and I guess maybe in the world at large about pumpkin spice lattes and other food products paying homage to this iconic autumnal combination. Specifically today I was listening to one of my backlogged episodes of Slate’s Culture Gabfest as they analyzed the intricacies of what the pumpkin spice latte tastes like and its place in the American consumer zeitgeist. If you don’t already listen to the Culture Gabfest, you should. It’s light but still articulate and compelling (you’re welcome Slate). You can listen to the whole show here but what I want to pull out from their discussion was the mention that Starbucks has added actual pumpkin to the Pumpkin Spice Latte this year in response to large levels of consumer criticism that they didn’t have any actual squash in the beverage.
So here’s the rub: why did the public feel like they were getting screwed with regard to their sugary, intensely orange beverage? Let’s break down the problems with being indignant about a lack of pumpkin.
1.) The thing you identify about pumpkin confectionary is the composition of the spices used not the squash. Cardamom, clove, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, maybe even curry or bay are the spices that make up the essence of pumpkin pie, in fact they are the pumpkin spice in the Pumpkin Spice latte. That is, they are the spices, often associated with pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread and ginger bread and spice cake and mince meat and a whole host of other holiday foods. One might even expect to see a pre-made blend of such spices sold by McCormick at your local grocery store under the name “pumpkin spice.” Thus, to think that a “pumpkin spice latte” is a latte that has pumpkin and spices in it is to miss true meaning of the label. It is a latte that is spiced with the same sorts of spices one uses in pumpkin goods most often seen in Autumn and the subsequent holiday season. “Pumpkin” is an adjective for “spice,” not one of the two ingredients added to the coffee.
2.) Pumpkins don’t taste of much to start with. Seriously, they don’t. Even when your mom or grandma makes pumpkin pie, she likely opens a can of mashed canned pumpkin and promptly adds mounds of sugar, bright and distinct spices like clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and some fattening agent like cream or sweetened condensed milk (because you could probably use some more sugar in your pie). If you tried to make a pie that really highlighted the flavor of pumpkin, you’d end up with a very mild, some might say bland, tart what wouldn’t get anyone particularly excited and certainly wouldn’t become its own fall season meme.
3.) Adding some sad bits of pumpkin flesh to your coffee didn’t make it any less of a flagrant exploitation of your seasonal nostalgia. Holidays are great times of year, at least that’s how must of us want to think about them — time with family and friends, maybe groups of people you haven’t seen in a while with whom you are looking to reconnect and enjoy. And for a lot of people that is what the run up to christmas and its sister holidays from other faiths really is. But Starbucks is playing into your sense of season, into your sense that this time of year is different than other parts of the calendar. And again, I’m not saying that it isn’t distinct or that it can’t be wonderful and magical and exciting. I’m just saying that drinking a sugar laden coffee beverage filled with colorings and a smattering of old school spice blends isn’t really a representation of anything at all. It doesn’t signal the beginning of the best time of the year and it certainly isn’t made any more metaphorical by adding a “authentic” dose of real pumpkin. It’s just a spendy beverage that trends during the last quarter of every year.
I realize that there are a lot of people who just like to drink pumpkin spice lattes and I think that is great. Like what you like and enjoy it. But just don’t look to a massive company like Starbucks or other equivalent peddler of harvest time food and drink to bring you an earnest reminiscence. They’re just trying to diversify the way they get into your pockets.
Instead let the signal of what is certainly, for many people, the best few months of the year be something external and natural, like the leaves changing color or the crisp cut of the outside air. Make your own spiced treats and start new traditions with your loved ones that will draw help to build memories and create anticipation for this time a year to come around again. Make it wholesome, make it real.