Have you ever taken a bite of a pumpkin? Like, hacked one of those ugly little cucurbits in half and gnawed on the actual meat inside? It doesn’t taste like much. A little sweet, pretty squash-y and worlds away from the litany of “pumpkin” and “pumpkin spice” foods clogging up grocery shelves this time of year.
I would know, I just spent two weeks eating only the latter.
Yes, I welcomed the change of seasons by gorging myself on the newest sign that autumn is here. Out are dead leaves and cool morning breezes. In are grocery aisles and coffee shop menus teeming with products that promise pumpkin, or at least something vaguely reminiscent of pumpkin. No category is immune. Breakfast foods, snack foods, cured meats, and dairy products have all been pumpkinized. It’s even moved beyond the edible. Pumpkin scented candles, soaps, lotions, and air fresheners now exist, too.
And who do we have to blame for this madness? Ourselves, mostly. In 2014 Americans spent $361 million on “pumpkin” products, up 79% from three years prior. We’re buying “pumpkin” in cans, in coffee, and in baked goods as fast as it can be produced. Weirdly though, we’re not buying actual pumpkins. Sales of the fruit that inspires these products have dropped three out of the past four years.
If consumers bear most of the responsibility for this scourge, the rest belongs with the food companies desperately pumping out pumpkin-flavored products. What was once a novelty became a cliche, and now is more akin to panic. The market is completely oversaturated. The bandwagon has reached capacity. A few more jumpers on and everyone will asphyxiate in pumpkin spice and drown in pumpkin puree.
And yet they keep coming. Hostess introduced its pumpkin spice CupCakes this year and covered them with “fall foliage sprinkles.” Arnold bread put out a limited-edition loaf of pumpkin spice bread. Next year? Pumpkin spice pumpkins perhaps.
As ubiquitous as it is, I’ve somehow managed to avoid this stuff. Pumpkin pie and pumpkin butter, sure -- I’ve had the classics. But the mass-produced, vacuum-packed, forcibly adulterated expressions of the pumpkin spice trend were a mystery to me. But then I got an email from Thrillist, and now they’re not.
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
There’s not much in the way of savory pumpkin food items, and for good reasons. When people want pumpkin foods, they really want pumpkin pie-flavored foods. And not even the hyperventilating trend zombies in America’s industrial food labs think pumpkin pie roast beef is a good idea.
Thus, my lunches mainly consisted of second breakfast, with some snack foods sprinkled in. I couldn’t find the pumpkin bread, pumpkin hummus, or pumpkin spice chicken sausages that the Internet tells me are out there. So I had a lot of Thomas' pumpkin spice English muffins coated in Philadelphia pumpkin spice cream cheese and some local pumpkin butter. Then I snacked on Mother’s Farms pumpkin seed tortilla chips, TJ’s pita crisps with cranberries and pumpkin seeds, and Salem Baking Co.’s pumpkin cheddar cheese straws. Hostess' pumpkin spice CupCakes and Little Debbie’s Pumpkin Delights were crap desserts.
All of this wasn’t as bad as it might sound. The pumpkin part of these products was often so subtle that I would have never noticed it without the seasonal packaging. For my sake, this was a good thing. A little variety goes a long way when your menu is so limited. But for the typical consumer, it’s bullshit. You buy pumpkin cheddar cheese straws and you expect it to have at least a hint of pumpkin flavor. Orange-washed snacks are benefiting from the trend without tasting like they belong. Which is bogus. Not that food companies care. If they sell one package of pumpkin spice Oreos to a curious consumer, they’re getting what they want.
Speaking of pumpkin spice Oreos, what a sad sign of American excess. Only a country that wastes some 40% of its food supply would grow so bored with sustenance that gimmicks like pumpkin spice Oreos -- engineered with neither pumpkin nor spices -- would succeed. It’s like we’re a nation of bored 8-year-olds playing with our dinner. Problem is, there are no parents to remind us that billions of people are hungry in the world and that toying with our food makes us look like monsters.
Also, pause for a moment to consider pie-flavored cookies. It sounds like the punchline to a hacky Canadian joke about fat Americans. In fact, this whole trend is pretty embarrassing when you consider it’s essentially our nation struggling to its feet to demand, Make everything taste like pie please!
Pumpkin-flavored lunch food is: Hard to find.
Legitimately good foods consumed: Pumpkin butter from Joe Huber's Family Farm & Restaurant
Acceptable foods: Thomas' pumpkin spice English muffins, Mother’s Farms pumpkin seed tortilla chips, TJ’s pita crisps with cranberries and pumpkin seeds
Unacceptable foods: Salem Baking Co.’s pumpkin cheddar cheese straws, Hostess' pumpkin spice CupCakes, Little Debbie’s Pumpkin Delights, Kraft's Jet-Puffed pumpkin spice marshmallows
Gnocchi, ravioli, and soup, soup, soup. Dinner options were sparse the past couple weeks, but with a little creativity, I made due. A pan of TJ’s pumpkin cornbread, which could also be called “a little bit of cinnamon cornbread,” lasted a week. I ate it next to World Market’s pumpkin gnocchi, TJ’s honey roasted pumpkin ravioli and its pumpkin soup, and Pereg’s pumpkin seed pearl couscous. The pumpkin flavors were mild. Pumpkin pasta doesn’t have much punch, unless you cover it in World Market’s pumpkin pasta sauce. But that would be a bad idea, because it tastes like baby food mixed with chicken broth. I used it once and threw the rest out.
I would have been miserable were it not for Trader Joe’s, which provided much of the variety, especially for dinners. The store is overflowing with pumpkin junk right now, as was my cart when I shopped there at the beginning of my journey. This caught the attention of a particularly chipper employee, a 50-something named Lisa with purple ribbons in her hair. She pointed me toward the pumpkin ice cream and pumpkin spiced pumpkin seeds (Xzibit approved no doubt) then started selling me on the This Pumpkin Walks Into a Bar... cereal bars. “They’re the most popular item,” she said, “and it’s great that they have an expiration date in April so people can freeze them.”
“Do people actually do that?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she said. “It’s not like our taste for those isn’t there in June.”
Lisa was just being a friendly “crew member,” but she’d inadvertently hit on one of the most salient arguments against pumpkin pie nonsense. If you like pumpkin-flavored foods, you like them all the time. The limited-edition, seasonal window of these things is pure marketing. Starbucks actually gets some rope here because at least a warm drink makes more sense in October than it does in June. But most manufacturers are creating a false sense of limited supply “designed to drive seasonal sales.” Really, that’s a direct quote from this Kraft press release. Ironically, they’ve flooded the market and created a crushing surplus.
Pumpkin-flavored dinner food is: Unnecessary, unrequested, and underwhelming.
Legitimately good foods consumed: TJ’s pumpkin ice cream
Acceptable foods: TJ’s pumpkin cornbread, TJ’s honey roasted pumpkin ravioli, TJ’s pumpkin soup, Pereg’s pumpkin seed pearl couscous
Unacceptable foods: World Market’s pumpkin gnocchi and its pumpkin pasta sauce
My self-imposed dietary restrictions have been lifted and my stomach is thanking me. For the first time in a week, I’ve gone without antacids. If you’re wondering about my digestion -- how could you not be? -- it was uneventful during the pumpkin-pocalypse. That is to say I didn’t have to spray this Glade pumpkin pit stop air freshener any more than I would have in a normal week.
And yet, even with it all behind me, here I sit eating Trader Joe’s pumpkin ice cream straight from the carton. It’s probably the best thing I had during this two-week experiment and I think there’s a reason why. The classic pumpkin pie, which all of this stuff is trying to approximate, isn’t all that different from ice cream. In both dishes, sugar, cream, and spices come together to form a custard. So of course pumpkin ice cream is good. It’s damn similar to the thing that it’s mimicking. And of course pumpkin spice marshmallows are bad. They’re nothing like pie.
In fact, if I’ve taken one thing away from my two-week sacrifice, it is this: pumpkin-flavored foods are only worth eating if you could see them inside a crust on the Thanksgiving table. If not, they belong on the ground with the dying leaves, crushed to pieces and becoming one with the Earth.
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Adam K. Raymond is a writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about sports, pop culture, technology, and politics for places like Maxim, New York, Esquire, Yahoo, and, of course, Thrillist. Follow him @adamkraymond.