The list of pumpkin-spiced items to which we are seasonally exposed grows longer every year: Since Starbucks opened the floodgates with the Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003, we've been enticed, repulsed, and confused by similarly flavored vodka, bagels, yogurt, donuts, oatmeal, M&Ms, etc. And yes, this year they even came for our Oreos.
It's gotten so out of control that for a day or two it seemed entirely plausible that the rumored pumpkin-spice condoms existed. (Then we remembered that only the most optimistic middle-school health teachers think anyone really cares what condoms taste like; there simply aren't enough autumn bachelorette parties to sustain a new flavor of seasonal novelty condom. The Jell-O's for real, though.) Sales of pumpkin-flavored whatnot increased 14 percent from 2012 to 2013, and they'll surely climb higher still in 2014.
And the onslaught starts earlier and earlier each year, too: At least one pumpkin beer was on shelves this July, and it feels like I've been reading preemptive anti-pumpkin screeds since Memorial Day. I promise this will not be any such diatribe. I don't give a shit who eats pumpkin-spiced ephemera, or when they do so. But I do wonder why there are suddenly so many options for all these happy nutmeg-munchers.
Food trends come and go all the time: That's why you can get a Sriracha Chicken Melt at Subway, Bac 'n' Cheddar Waffles at IHOP, and hideous Cappuccino Lay's at all manner of otherwise self-respecting outlets. This potato chip thing makes some people irrationally angry, but for the most part we reasonable adults are OK with living in a world full of such grotesqueries, because variety is fun, and lots of our friends work in marketing, and every now and then one of these weird-ass things happens to tickle the less discerning parts of our own particular taste buds. I'm nearly certain we will have Bourbon Barrel-Aged Mountain Dew by the end of the year, and I'm just as confident that I'll hate it. But you never know.
It takes a lot for any given flavor-dust formula to dominate such a crowded and ever-changing junk-food marketplace. But for the past several autumns, the cinnamon-nutmeg-clove-sugar amalgamation has managed to preoccupy our mouths both coming and going: When we're not stuffing pumpkin-spiced food in, we're spewing pumpkin-spiced opinions out.
Again, I don't think this particular strain of lust deserves scorn; Concourse contributor Maura Johnston, among others, has been righteously critical of the way half-assed writers are overly reliant on the conflation of "pumpkin-spice" with "basic bitch," as if there's something inherently character-defining about a preference for a particular latte flavor. This article, for instance, calls Nickelback "the pumpkin spice of modern rock music," pulling off a deft double-shaming of anyone gauche enough to like either or both of these culture-war criminals.
So we've established that pumpkin spice is perfectly acceptable, right? OK, so now let's address the small matter of WHY THE FUCK HAS IT BEEN IN EVERY SINGLE THING I'VE INGESTED SINCE LABOR DAY? My editor and I really wanted there to be some awesome, sinister backstory about Starbucks and Shipyard Brewing winning all of America's pumpkin patches in a late-'90s poker game with ConAgra and then spending the next few years figuring out how to sucker us into rewarding their ill-gotten monopoly, but then we realized that actual pumpkins don't have much to do with this trend: "Pumpkin"-flavored really means "pumpkin spice"-flavored, which really means "vaguely reminiscent of pumpkin pie, which itself has very little to do with the guts of a pumpkin."
I tried to get Starbucks to put me in touch with whichever flavor scientist developed the magic dust way back when, but while they were more than willing to discuss the ingredients (summary: no pumpkin, no arsenic), I was told the "process" was proprietary information. I'd like to think this "process" is kicking back somewhere on a gold-plated, pumpkin-shaped yacht, but I suppose it's more likely he's still in the back of the lab trying to determine the most efficient way to sweeten, liquefy, and caffeinate kale.
It is worth noting that although most "pumpkin"-flavored foods are emphatically devoid of actual gourd meat, the pumpkin-spice movement may have helped goose the popularity of the real thing: The pumpkin-hustlers have seen sales increase by 34 percent in the past five years, and at least one farmer attributes this to the way the associated spice flavor "gets the name out there."
I'm more inclined to believe it's because people love to clutter their houses with crap, so we've made the natural progression from getting by with just the single regulation carving model to strewing the little tennis-ball-sized pumpkins all about. Plus farmer's markets get more popular every year, and once tomato season fades away, you can only buy so many apples, so sure, fuck it, grab another pumpkin. Or maybe we really are such strange creatures that we buy decorative vegetables because we like a certain flavor of Pop-Tart. All we know for certain is that these pumpkins aren't making their way into your orange-tinted cream cheese.
The pumpkin-spice craze seems to have begun the old-fashioned way: Food and drink manufacturers threw a flavor combination against the wall, and it stuck. What made it extra sticky is subject to debate, but it probably has something to do with the concurrent ascendancies of craft coffee and craft beer. High-end versions of our two most vital fluids have only recently achieved mainstream ubiquity. It used to mean something if you bought a $4 coffee or a $10 six-pack. Now it's just what humans do when their mouths get dry. (I'm referring, of course, to the sort of humans who read articles like this; our people.)
Lattes may be the most iconic of the pumpkin-spiced foods, but Buffalo Bill's Brewery has been offering pumpkin beer since the late 1980s, and the style now rivals craft darling India pale ale when in-season. As for pumpkin-themed coffee, hell, McDonald's and 7-Eleven sell it these days. Americans find great solace in their mood-altering beverages, so it makes perfect sense that the rest of the comfort-food industry has taken note.
The segment has expanded to the point where we now associate pumpkin-spice flavor with an entire quarter of the calendar year—Starbucks et al have pulled off the ultimate marketing stunt of essentially turning a season into a holiday. "How are you guys celebrating fall this year?" "Oh, no big plans. Looking at some leaves, Thanksgiving with my parents, eating exclusively pumpkin-flavored shit the other 91 days."
So it turns out there may not have been any one triggering event or nefarious corporate motive driving our current pumpkin-spice mania. It appears to be a natural evolution of our twin desires to play with our food and to use the shortening of the days and the dying of the leaves as excuses to seek not just sustenance and pleasure from food, but also "comfort." This all seems a bit infantile and maybe even desperate, until you remember that pumpkin spice is largely harmless and at least something that people genuinely enjoy, which is why we're gonna miss it in a few weeks when all the eggnog bullshit shows up.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Image by Sam Woolley.
The Concourse is Deadspin's home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter @DSconcourse.