WFAEats: Love It Or Hate It, Pumpkin Spice Has Staying Power

Oct 5, 2018

In case you missed it, we’re smack in the middle of the year’s most contentious season.

No, not election season – pumpkin spice season.

Maybe it’s not the most urgent issue up for debate, but some people feel almost as passionately about it as others do about climate change or coal ash.

My friend Jacquie Danielle summed up her sentiments in two words: “Hate it.”

Co-worker Liz Morrell loves the stuff so much she has a pumpkin spice fragrance diffuser in her office where she enjoys nibbling on pumpkin spice popcorn.

Kelly Hewins draws a line: “I like real pumpkin things – pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, actual pumpkin – but someone needs to stop the madness.”

Pumpkin and the spices that comprise the now-pervasive flavor (most often cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg) have been around for centuries. But the introduction of a Starbucks pumpkin spice beverage in 2003 landed their latte right in the midst of mainstream consumer culture. The company has since sold millions of them. “Can I be honest?” asks Erin. “I've never had a pumpkin spice latte in my life! It doesn't sound appealing. I like fall things, I like cinnamon, but that just sounds weird.”

Just how ubiquitous are pumpkin and its sidekick spice? I joked to my friend, Sky Broome, that the next mutation would see the stuff turning up in cosmetic and hair care products. Within seconds, he’d sent me a link to pumpkin-infused shampoo and eye makeup. For people who like to say on trend, pretzels and cough drops make the list of hot, new PS items for 2018.

But what exactly entices people to drink – and develop a devotion – to this concoction? The answer lies partly in “emotional branding.” According to Scientific American writer Krystal D’Costa, people in the U.S. associate pumpkin spice with agricultural bounty, the fall harvest, and the traditions of preserving and storing food for winter.

That’s not the case for everyone, especially people of color. Says Thea Rhinehardt: “I didn’t encounter pumpkin until I began navigating mostly white spaces. My family never ever cooked, served, or purchased anything made of pumpkin. Instead, we ate sweet potatoes – baked, candied, pie, cobbler, etc. I have grown to appreciate pumpkin but still consider it a poor substitute to sweet potatoes – which I prefer without cloying spices. So I see all the pumpkin spice flavors with great amusement.”

Kenya Templeton expands on that explanation: “Culturally, black people don't do pumpkin. We had yams in Africa and using sweet potatoes made a suitable substitute. In addition, it takes less time to prepare sweet potatoes as you don’t have to deal with the seeds and pulp. With the limited land our African forefathers had, pumpkins didn’t make any sense to grow.”

Like most things that go mainstream, pumpkin spice has become “basic,” and its drinkers are often ridiculed. Lifestyle maven Martha Stewart reportedly dissed the drink on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live.

But other people are standing up for the right to love the stuff without shame: “Could we, without relentlessly criticizing, let people have their pumpkin spice, their avocado toast … and whatever little harmless things in which they’ve managed to find a shriveled flower of joy?” proclaims a meme going around.

Liz, the “proud pumpkin nut” mentioned above, sent me a link to a scholarly article from GeoHumanities titled “The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins.” It delves deeply into “the complicated interplay among food, leisure, labor, nostalgia, and race.”

Milk and pasta. Cookies, candy, and cocktails. Love it or hate it, pumpkin spice is here to stay – at least through November. After that, it will be all about peppermint mocha.

Does anyone have an opinion about that?

Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.

The Charlotte Museum of History will host “WFAEats: A Food Tasting Event” on Thursday, October 11 from 6 to 8 pm. Restaurants, caterers, and food purveyors will serve samples of their best food and drink. Attendees will vote for their favorites. Proceeds will benefit WFAE’s award-winning local news and Charlotte Talks. For tickets, visit this link at eventbrite.com.