Plate of the Union: Pumpkins: Spiked and Spiced

October 25, 2012

“Life starts all over again when Starbucks starts selling pumpkin spice lattes in the fall and doesn’t fill the cup all the way to the brim on account of all that God-damned whipped cream, Daisy.”

Of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t live long enough to actually contemplate the phenomenon that is Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte, but the Internet had the courtesy to pretend that he did when it recrafted one of his most famous lines. And while it’s still true that “life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall,” pumpkin-spiced everything now challenges cold weather and crimson leaves as the definitive sign of the season. It may be 78 degrees outside, but if the baristas in green aprons are selling their sweet, spiced lattes, autumn has arrived.

However, this culinary season of clove and cinnamon reaches far beyond Starbucks: pumpkin pancake mix, nutmeg apple cider, and pumpkin roobios tea now line the shelves at Trader Joe’s.

What’s startling about this commercial, pre-packaged pumpkin season is its lack of natural counterparts. In an industrialized food system that makes glistening GMO strawberries available in January, real seasons have virtually disappeared from our supermarkets. Michael Pollan, activist journalist and champion of the food movement, vehemently indicts this seasonal erasure from a philosophical standpoint.

“Now there are tomatoes all year round, grown halfway around the world, picked when they were green, and ripened with ethylene gas. Although it looks like a tomato, it’s a kind of a notional tomato. I mean, it’s the idea of a tomato,” he declares in Food Inc. Tomatoes have lost their appeal—and their flavor—as a result of the demise of defined agricultural seasons.

Still, pumpkin spice season lives on. Though gourds and squash are actually harvested in the fall, there’s no such thing as the best month for buying pumpkin latte syrup. Theoretically, Starbucks could offer their famous lattes all year long, just as we do tomatoes.

Instead, the coffee shop recreates the specialness of the season by refusing to sell us pumpkin spice lattes at any other time—and I’m okay with that. I’ll mourn the destruction of natural seasons along with Pollan, but that won’t stop me from celebrating an autumn full of pumpkin chai cupcakes, acorn squash pasta, and cinnamon clove steamers. Fall’s culinary bounty—commercially manufactured or not—should be taken seriously.

Which is why pumpkin spice lattes alone won’t cut it. If you’re prepared to spend upwards of $5 on a fancy caffeinated drink on a Sunday morning, there’s no excuse for drinking unseasonal pink lemonade Burnett’s on Saturday night.

Fall is an opportunity to try Blue Moon’s autumn sampler, with its harvest pumpkin and caramel apple spiced ales. Fall is a reason to splurge on Angustura bitters, to lend a splash of color to your drink with notes of ginger, clove, and dry orange. It’s a chance to throw out the old Coca-Cola and Sprite mixers and replace them with apple cider and cinnamon hot chocolate.

Autumn drinks are anything but untraditional. Pablo Neruda waxed poetic about them in his Book of Questions, in which he also pondered the meaning of life. “How old is November? What does autumn go on paying for with so much yellow money? What is the name of the cocktail that mixes vodka with lightning bolts?”

We’ll never know the name of Neruda’s mysterious autumn cocktail, but last week I found something that came close. As I entered a Henle with the sign “It’s about to get seasonal” on the door, I was greeted by an impromptu bar crowded with tonic water and gourds. The drink of the night was the dark and stormy—ginger beer mixed with spiced rum. Sharp and dry, the ginger beer lit up the cocktail even as the rum mellowed it out. More than any pumpkin spice latte could, this drink declared the season—fall is in full swing.

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