It is late September here in North Texas, (and, I assume, in other places too), and the temperature has finally begun to cool down from the inferno-like heat of summer. Even before the welcome arrival of autumnal air, you could tell that a change in season was imminent simply by entering a coffee shop or grocery store. Wherever you look, you’re bombarded by the sight and smells of pumpkins: big, orange ones, weirdly shaped white ones, itty-bitty cute ones of varying hues, as well as suggestively shaped gourds…
Pumpkin Spice latte, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, pumpkin spice granola – I’m sure somewhere there is probably pumpkin tea! (“helps with weight loss…”).
To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld: what’s the deal with pumpkins?
The pumpkin is, of course, a New World food. It is thought that they originated in Central and South America, before being introduced to the north and becoming a staple of the Native American diet. From the genus ‘Cucurbitacae‘ – the squash family, including cucumber, gherkins and melon – almost every part of the pumpkin was consumed in one form or another. The flesh, flowers and seeds were used as food, while the outer rind was cut into strips, dried and turned into a resilient, almost waterproof matting.
Every kid is taught in school how the pilgrims, newly arrived on the continent, were introduced to pumpkins as a nutritious staple by the local tribes – one could almost say that the ubiquitous gourd is the foundation of the country – the settlers certainly would not have survived without it. The pumpkins were dried and ground into meal or flour and used to feed not only the pilgrims, but their livestock. Understandably, pumpkins are a major theme of Thanksgiving dinner, for what else are we to be thankful for? Turkeys? (don’t get me started…)
Pumpkins are also a fixture of another great American holiday – Halloween. Interestingly, the tradition of creating “jack-o-lanterns” was imported by the multitude of settlers from Ireland during the mid-19th century. The seasonal tradition of placing candles inside sturdy vegetables was part of Celtic lore, and was said to keep evil spirits away. As pumpkins do not grow naturally in Ireland, turnips, potatoes or other root vegetables were used instead. The folk-tale of Stingy Jack and his turnip lantern was easily translated to become the “jack-o-lantern” of Halloween.
[The story goes that Stingy Jack invited the Devil for a drink, (never a good idea, if you ask me). Being a stingy soul, Jack did not want to pay, and, somehow, convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin, thereby paying for their beverages. However, Jack took off with the coin (devil) releasing him only after the Devil promised not to drag his soul to hell. Instead, he placed a burning ember in a hollow turnip which Jack had to carry as he walked the Earth for eternity.]
OK; so pumpkins are embedded in American tradition. They are a nutritious and versatile vegetable whose colors reflect the splendor of the autumn leaves; yada, yada, yada…
But who thought that pumpkin spice was an acceptable flavor for coffee??
This year, the Pumpkin Spice Latte (or PSL, as it is “affectionately” known) turns 13. It’s popularity has spawned a whole industry of seasonal pumpkin-related products, some of which have no business being in the same room as a pumpkin, much less flavored by one (pumpkin pie-flavored vodka, anyone…?) Forbes magazine estimated that Starbucks made around 100 million dollars from the beverage just last Fall! It even has its own Twitter account, for God’s sake! (@TheRealPSL)
Maybe it’s because I’m British, but I dislike the taste of pumpkin and pumpkin spice. “Pumpkin Spice” is a combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger, all of which are perfectly fine in and of themselves, but somehow, when combined, have a weirdly fake flavor. Judging by the huge success of pumpkin-flavored seasonal items, however, I seem to be in the minority. Maybe it has something to do with the subconscious – the inner child realizing that the Fall holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving are approaching, heralding the inevitable run-up to Christmas – but it seems that the pumpkin genie is definitely out of the gourd (as it were); purloined by the inexorable drive of consumerism…
Me? I’m just waiting for the Peppermint Mocha to arrive…