Pumpkin Spice Sums Up What Ails This Nation





“You should write about pumpkin spice,” a friend urged.

“I’d rather shoot myself.”

I used to like pumpkin spices (note the plural, distinguishing the time-honored spice-rack cluster of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and allspice). Then Starschmucks made a 390-calorie latte with flavored syrup and people lost their minds. We no longer have autumn; we have pumpkin spice season. Grocery stores devote endcaps to the assorted foodstuffs that sold their souls to hop on the hayride. There are pumpkin spice donuts, muffins, breads, cookies, pancakes, waffles, coffeecakes, cereals, yogurts, ice creams, granola, protein bars, cream cheese spreads, hummus, beers, cream liqueurs, rums, hard ciders, nondairy milks, and teas—not to mention Pup-Kin Spice Milk Bones for dogs.

Clearly, we are desperate, but for what? So many possibilities. Commonality, so we can at least find something we all crave and enjoy together. Seasons, in this odd, stormy, unpredictable, and overwarm new climate. Deliciousness, after years of shunning carbs and sugar. Warmth, after years of therapy pinpointing the dysfunctions of our families past and present. Coziness, after cynicism eroded our trust in nearly every tradition that comforted us.

The season helps. Never have I seen so many paeans to autumn. Sweats, hayrides, sweaters, cocoa, flannel—a longed-for correction to the overheated summer? Or just a way to feel safe, blanketed against the harsh elements, soothed….

The ur-text for the trend is pumpkin pie, that homely favorite of the Thanksgiving feast. Many of us ate it, usually at a big table, surrounded by family, back in the days when pie was baked not bought. It slid into the meal at the end, when the tryptophan in the turkey had already relaxed us and overindulgence had us a bit sleepy, heightening the dessert’s comfort. Pumpkin spice thus conjures homey domesticity and intact family—and is treasured like frankincense and myrrh in a time when far fewer people marry or have children, and family members tend to split, scatter, or turn against each other.

Nostalgia works powerfully on the appetite.

So does novelty, and after months of yelling “Grande with hazelnut and skim” into a drive-through speaker, coffee drinkers perhaps needed a break. Layered with choices, their orders are already as complicated and specific as a floor plan. A drink of the season simplifies matters without requiring extra thought.

Scarcity plays a part, too. After mass production made it possible for us to have everything all the time, companies are finally realizing the basic tenet of human psychology: we desire what we cannot have all the time. We love being forced to wait eagerly for the next episode of the show we are streaming, because the binge days only dazed and sickened us. We love the arrival of pumpkin spice season because we cannot have (nor would we want) pumpkin spice in the dead of summer or the fresh dawn of spring. For once, our appetites have been bracketed.

The marketing of this cunningly limited commodity must therefore hit all the harder, making sure we know the time has come. And what analysis would be complete without social media, where people can throw photos of their pumpkin spice treats on Instagram or coo about them on Facebook?

I do not mean to sound scathing. Next week is our town’s annual Pumpkin Festival, and clusters of sage green, cream, and orange pumpkins are prettying up people’s steps. Pumpkins have grown in North America for 9,000 years. Illinois grows more than anybody—652 million pounds in 2021, more than the other five pumpkin states combined. A Pomkin recipe (mace, nutmeg, and ginger) was published in 1796 in the first known cookbook published in this country. In their natural state, these spices warm us, tingle a little, soothe the tummy, deliver happy associations. But artificial pumpkin spice flavor gags me, and the usual commercial syrup is only 10 percent natural. The rest of the taste comes from cinnamaldehyde for cinnamon, sabinene for nutmeg, zingiberene for ginger, and eugenol for clove or allspice. Deep fakery.

The larger problem (for we have grown used to our synthetics) is excess. More precisely, greed and lemming conformity. Starbucks introduced that latte in 2004, and two decades later, companies are still copying, hungry for a piece of the action. Hormel put up a photo of pumpkin spice Spam and had to swiftly break the news to excited customers that the photo was a joke. Two years later, the company produced a limited-edition pumpkin spice Spam for real. It sold out in less than seven hours. There was, of course, no actual pumpkin in the product—yet another reason the trend is perfect for the age of hallucination.

The suite of pumpkin spice stuff comes out earlier each year, weakening the magnetic pull of scarcity that originally made it exciting. By now, the flavor is used so indiscriminately, I am waiting for pumpkin spice Pepto Bismol. A good idea has turned into a tiresome trend, eye-roll familiar and ubiquitous, and we dread it the way we dread looped Christmas carols—and those winsome animated cards that take an hour to watch and clog up our computers—and every holiday that gets displayed to us three months early.

Rugged individualists? Ha. We are soft, as my tough mother-in-law, who grew up on a farm, used to say. Our national character is that of the consummate conformist, grabbing whatever the corporate world dangles before us. My grandmother would have tasted one of these concoctions, shrugged, and returned to her own spice rack. But because we have no time to cook or even to think, we either seize whatever is on offer or make dissing it (like this) our schtick. In both instances, we are still suffering from the “tyranny of the majority” that Alexis de Tocqueville saw troubling the early Republic. Lacking the anchors of established custom and a rooted class system, he wrote, Americans flail about, easily seduced by ephemeral trends. This was a new type of oppression, he added, threatening democracies in a new way. U.S. citizens obeyed elaborate rules of propriety (today replaced by consumer and social media trends) and hesitated to venture too far beyond accepted opinion. “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”

What better place to introduce pumpkin spice?


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.