The gourd life

Pump­kin spice morn­ing, noon and night? It’s not as bad as it sounds.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MAURA JUD­KIS

What hap­pens when a writer im­merses her­self in pump­kin spice.

Pump­kin spice is not a fla­vor, it’s a life­style. Its mantra is the crackle of fallen leaves and bon­fires. “Sweater weather” is its holy creed. The pump­kin spice life, like its cof­fee, is sweet, and you are al­ways #thank­ful for your #bless­ings. It was never re­ally about that par­tic­u­lar blend of cin­na­mon, clove, nut­meg, gin­ger and all­spice, but how it makes us feel: warm, nos­tal­gic, loved.

Cor­po­ra­tions would like us to ex­pe­ri­ence th­ese feel­ings when we think of their prod­ucts, and that’s how we got to the place we are to­day: Where the de­but of the Star­bucks pump­kin spice latte is more ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated than any block­buster film. And where a per­son can go to the gro­cery store and pick up dozens of pump­kin spice prod­ucts, from ke­fir to dog treats. Which is ex­actly what I did, for one nut megladen week: Any time I en­coun­tered a pump­kin-themed prod­uct, I bought it. My cart over­flowed with or­ange pack­ag­ing for ce­real, candy, cook­ies, tea, cof­fee, gluten-free frozen waf­fles, pasta sauce, cheese, pa­per tow­els and scented can­dles. I looked com­pletely de­ranged.

I ended up with more than 40 prod­ucts. I’m writ­ing this story af­ter a break­fast of pump­kin spice toast, pump­kin spice yo­gurt with pump­kin gra­nola, and an iced pump­kin spice chai, sit­ting next to a flick­er­ing pump­kin spice can­dle, be­cause I am seek­ing pump­kin spice en­light­en­ment. Like go­ing on a silent med­i­ta­tion re­treat, I have im­mersed my­self in the pump­kin spice life­style, and it is equal parts em­bar­rass­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing, but that’s prob­a­bly just the seven-day su­gar binge talk­ing.

To write about pump­kin spice is to write about a par­tic­u­lar species of Amer­i­can: The Ba­sic. Short for “Ba­sic Bitch,” she rev­els in con­ven­tional pur­suits like Ni­cholas Sparks nov­els, wear­ing leg­gings and brunch. The term orig­i­nated in hip-hop and was co-opted by white women, and some­where in that process, pump­kin spice be­came the ul­ti­mate sym­bol of ba­sic­ness — sweet, bland, un­o­rig­i­nal. To call some­one ba­sic is clas­sist, be­cause typ­i­cally, it’s the wealthy who can af­ford to cul­ti­vate less con­ven­tional tastes. But the in­sult has been re­claimed by its vic­tims: There are es­says about how women are “proud to be ba­sic,” and, in turn, proud to love pump­kin spice.

Be­fore em­bark­ing on my pump­kin spice binge, I de­cided to as­sess the sit­u­a­tion by tak­ing a Buzz Feed “How ba­sic are you?” quiz. Yes, I checked off, I love bagels, but no, I don’t like them “scooped.” I take barre classes, but I don’t say “margs” in­stead of “mar­gar­i­tas” (shud­der). The ver­dict came back: a score of 16 out of 119, “not ba­sic at all.” I had a lot of work to do.

It started with a trip to my lo­cal Gi­ant on La­bor Day, the day be­fore the PSL, as it’s called, hit Star­bucks for the sea­son. It was 85 de­grees and sunny out­side, but I was stock­ing up on au­tumn: pump­kin spice Chobani yo­gurt, Pills­bury pump­kin spice cin­na­mon rolls, Land O’

Lakes pump­kin spice “but­ter spread,” Belvita pump­kin spice break­fast bis­cuits. That night, I watched as Star­bucks com­pleted an 80-hour Face­book broad­cast with the “hatch­ing” of the sea­son’s first PSL, named “Fall’icia.” Fans were com­ment­ing fu­ri­ously.

“The pump­kin is preg­nant, Melissa,” one said, ex­plain­ing the strange tableau: a pump­kin sit­ting in a bird’s nest, with a fog ma­chine just off screen.

“Hope it’s fog and not smoke . . . not good for the baby,” posted an­other woman.

“Can she give birth al­ready? I have to watch Bach­e­lor in Par­adise,” a third posted.

And then the blessed vir­gin pump­kin gave birth to Fall’icia, and wrapped her in a heat-re­sis­tant card­board sleeve and placed her in a manger, for there was no room at the Star­bucks. And an an­gel of the Ba­sics ap­peared to them and said: “Glory to Fall in the high­est heaven, and on earth peace to those who wear North Face jack­ets and love Tay­lor Swift.”

It was orig­i­nally called pump­kin pie spice, first pack­aged and sold as a blend in the 1950s. It didn’t make its way into the Star­bucks drink un­til 2003 — and, in sub­se­quent years, into pretty much ev­ery­thing else. The PSL has con­sis­tently been the chain’s most pop­u­lar sea­sonal drink. One of its first test mar­kets was Wash­ing­ton.

But our area’s his­tory with the fla­vor goes back much fur­ther. Pre­vi­ously un­be­known to even my ed­i­tor, one of the first ref­er­ences to “pump­kin spice” ap­pears to be a 1936 recipe that ran in The Wash­ing­ton Post. (The call is com­ing from inside the house!)

“Pump­kin spice cake is a de­sir­able dessert for a fam­ily din­ner, and a health­ful pick-me-up for chil­dren af­ter school,” read a recipe that was eye­brow-rais­ingly out­dated, re­fer­ring to pump­kin as a food of the “Ital­ian peas­antry.” We could find no ear­lier ref­er­ence to “pump­kin spice” in a search of his­tor­i­cal news­pa­pers. It might be our fault. We’re sorry. You’re wel­come. It is pos­si­ble to spend an en­tire day sub­sist­ing off noth­ing but pump­kin-spice prod­ucts. For break­fast, you might have one of the yo­gurts — a Chobani flip, with a lit­tle pocket of pump­kin seeds to stir in, or the Noosa, with a smear of pump­kin puree the color of sun­set. You could have pump­kin spice Chee­rios, or Frosted Mini-Wheats, or gra­nola from Archer Farms, the house brand of Tar­get. If you don’t eat gluten, no wor­ries: Na­ture’s Path has gluten-free pump­kin spice waf­fles. You can mix your chilled Tazo pump­kin spice tea with milk for an iced latte, or pop open a can of La Colombe pump­kin spice draft latte. For a mid­morn­ing snack, there’s pump­kin spice Blue Di­a­mond nuts, or maybe G.H. Cre­tors pump­kin spice pop­corn.

Lunch brings you to Au Bon Pain’s new sea­sonal sand­wich: a pump­kin-but­ter-smeared crois­sant with hot ham, turkey and cheese. For din­ner, start with a Zupa Noma Pump­kin Cin­na­mon Sage bot­tled soup, then pasta with Gi­ant-brand pump­kin pasta sauce, which is not ex­pressly branded as pump­kin spice, but tastes sweet enough that it should be. Dessert brings a bounty of op­tions: Halo Top pump­kin pie ice cream? Hal­loween-or­ange pump­kin spice Oreos? Or Whole Foods’ 365-brand pump­kin spice bites — minia­ture cook­ies that taste more of ap­ple than pump­kin spice, but why quib­ble?

No mat­ter how or­ange, it will rarely taste of pump­kin, be­cause pump­kin is not the point. Sure, there’s pump­kin puree — or more fre­quently, “pump­kin pow­der” — in many prod­ucts. But it’s mostly for dec­o­ra­tion, and fre­quently over­pow­ered by cin­na­mon or clove. The Jell-O Pump­kin Pie Pud­ding tastes mostly of vanilla and nut­meg. The pump­kin spice Chee­rios aren’t too dif­fer­ent from clas­sic honey nut. The pump­kin spice Belvita bis­cuits taste like a gra­ham cracker mixed with a com­mu­nion wafer. ( We are prob­a­bly only a year away from pump­kin spice com­mu­nion wafers). The M&Ms taste mostly of corn syrup.

The pump­kin spice life­style is not just about the fla­vor, but about mak­ing sure that ev­ery­one knows you are a dis­ci­ple. There are shirts that say “Pump­kin spice is my fa­vorite sea­son,” or “I like pump­kin spice a latte,” or the sim­ple “Leg­gings, boots & pump­kin spice.” If you spill your cof­fee, you can wipe it up with pump­kin print pa­per tow­els. Blow your nose with tis­sue in a pump­kin-festooned box. Make your sweat smell like nut­meg with Na­tive’s pump­kin spice de­odor­ant. (“You smell like . . . vanilla?” my hus­band guessed, but maybe he was smelling my Glade “Cozy Au­tumn” can­dle.)

You don’t even have to be hu­man to live the PS life­style. Spoil Me Rot­ten’s “pump­kin n’spice” dog bis­cuits en­sure that a Ba­sic’s best friends will get sea­sonal treats too. My dogs loved them! They also love eat­ing garbage straight out of the can. They also love lick­ing their own butts.

If you think dog bis­cuits are peak pump­kin spice, you may be right. This year could be the be­gin­ning of the end of the pump­kin spice party. Two con­sumer re­search firms, Nielsen and 1010data, have found that in­ter­est in pump­kin spice-fla­vored prod­ucts is not grow­ing as quickly in 2017 as in pre­vi­ous years. Ac­cord­ing to Nielsen, dol­lar sales of pump­kin-fla­vored items reached a new high in 2017 at $414 mil­lion. But growth over the pre­vi­ous year has been much slower — 6 per­cent, com­pared with 20 per­cent in 2013. Most pump­kin spice latte drinkers buy only one per sea­son.

Com­pa­nies haven’t got­ten the memo yet. Ac­cord­ing to 1010data, the num­ber of pump­kin spice prod­ucts for sale on­line had surged nearly 50 per­cent over last year, while sales them­selves are up just 21 per­cent.

“It’s just not quite as pop­u­lar as it was a few years ago,” said Samir Bhav­nani, vice pres­i­dent of con­sumer in­sights for 1010data. “It might put some neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions in con­sumer’s minds. They’re prob­a­bly just over it. It’s too much . . . do you re­ally need pump­kin spice in your yo­gurt?”

The yo­gurts are kind of good, ac­tu­ally. I bought more of them af­ter a barre class, clad in head-to-toe Ath­leisure, and I was hy­per­aware of how much of a stereo­type I ap­peared to be. The La Colombe canned cof­fees, too — those I’d drink again. I was pre­pared to be hor­ri­fied by the pump­kin spice goat cheese, from Gi­ant’s house brand, but it tasted like cheese­cake.

But just when I thought I could get ac­cus­tomed to the pump­kin spice life­style, one prod­uct snapped me out of it.

Or­ganic spray-on pump­kin spice. It’s in an aerosol can, like hair spray, and you can drench any in­ad­e­quately pump­kin-spiced item with the fla­vor. You could have pump­kin spice tuna! Pump­kin spice wine. Pump­kin spice cough syrup. It tastes like you squirted an air fresh­ener di­rectly into your mouth. On the back, there’s a warn­ing la­bel in red: “Avoid spray­ing in eyes.”

I think I’m go­ing to keep a bot­tle of it in my purse for­ever. Not so I can make ev­ery­thing pump­kin spice — the world al­ready has enough of that. In­stead, if I ever get mugged, I’m go­ing to use it as mace.


Pump­kin spice fla­vors are fea­tured in sweets, ce­re­als, bev­er­ages and even pasta dishes. But PS is more about the state of mind than the fla­vor.


Fifty shades of or­ange: Pump­kin spice is so much more than a latte th­ese days.

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