I began at the beginning, with Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte. The Patagonia-clad patriarch of the pumpkin product family is the most anticipated of all the autumnal seasonal offerings. And not coincidentally, the most derided. My first ever sip of a PSL was unremarkable. Super sweet, of course. Before my second sip, in an attempt to channel the drink’s target consumer, I threw on a chunky sweater, gripped the cup in both hands, pulled it close to my chin and marveled at the fall foliage. Then I drank. Tasted the same.
My indifference toward the PSL makes me an anomaly. Those who don’t hate it, love it. And those who love it, buy it -- often. The PSL is Starbucks’ most popular seasonal offering and the reason the pumpkin product began in the first place. Funny, considering the PSL was nearly DOA. Back in 2002 Starbucks tested possibilities for a fall flavor and pumpkin was firmly middle of the pack, behind caramel, chocolate, and cinnamon, among others. But Peter Dukes, the company’s espresso czar, saw a pumpkin-sized hole in the market and made a bet that the PSL’s novelty would make it stand out. He was right.
The drink inspired endless copycats in every grocery aisle. I ate three different pumpkin cereals over the two weeks -- Trader Joe's Pumpkin O’s, pumpkin Puffins, and pumpkin spice Frosted Mini-Wheats. I had country pumpkin spice granola, pumpkin Greek yogurt, pecan pumpkin oatmeal, and frozen pumpkin waffles, all from Trader Joe’s. There were also Entenmann’s pumpkin donuts, pumpkin pie Pop-Tarts, and Trader Joe’s pumpkin rolls with pumpkin spice icing, all of which my wife was happy to try. The novelty of the pumpkin spice flavors made her feel less guilty about buying gut-busting, unhealthy food. “We never buy cinnamon rolls, so if it takes some pumpkin flavoring to get them in the house, I can live with that,” she said.
The first thing I learned about pumpkin-flavored foods is the importance of the name. Turns out the foods that call themselves “pumpkin” have actual pumpkin in them. Otherwise they’re called “pumpkin spice” and include cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Mostly, the pumpkin spice foods tasted the same -- sugary-sweet and cinnamon-y. The ones with actual pumpkin, like the donuts, were bland and forgettable. Some without, like the pumpkin spice Frosted Mini-Wheats, were punchier and slightly less forgettable.
When it comes to pumpkin products, there’s no use for the real thing. No one wants squash-flavored coffee, they want the powerful spices that make pumpkin edible. That’s why it never made sense to get riled up about the PSL not containing real pumpkin. Starbucks actually added real pumpkin to the drink as of this year, but that had nothing to do with flavor and everything to do with appeasing alarmists like the Food Babe, who fear ingredients with more syllables than the word ingredients.
If you want to rail against the inauthentic nature of the PSL and its offspring, forget the ingredients. Focus instead on the ridiculous notion that there’s something cozy and charming about autumn. This is the season of death. The pool has closed, vacation is 10 months away, days are shorter, the air is colder, and new crime procedurals are taking over your TV. Feeling that pain is part of being alive, and we shouldn’t let corporate-sanctioned cheer get in the way of that.
Pumpkin-flavored breakfast food is: Super sweet and pretty much just tastes like cinnamon.
Legitimately good foods consumed: Pumpkin spice Frosted Mini-Wheats, TJ’s pecan pumpkin oatmeal
Acceptable foods: Pumpkin spice latte, TJ’s Pumpkin O’s, pumpkin Puffins, TJ’s country pumpkin spice granola, TJ’s pumpkin Greek yogurt, TJ’s frozen pumpkin waffles, My Favorite... pancake and waffle mix with pumpkin spice, pumpkin pie Pop-Tarts, TJ’s pumpkin rolls with pumpkin spice icing
Unacceptable foods: Entenmann’s pumpkin donuts