Food & dining

In defense of fall flavors: Pumpkin spice is nice

Shutterstock / Nataliya Arzamasova

People often get heated talking for or against the pumpkin flavor.

Forgive me, world, for I have sinned. I leave dirty dishes in the sink overnight. I have, on occasion, double-parked outside my son’s school.

And, yes, I love pumpkin. Maple, too. All right, even nutmeg and cinnamon. I relish the aroma. I savor the deep, rich hues. And, most of all, I appreciate the sensations that those flavors evoke. Artificial, real, powdered, whipped, drizzled, packaged in cookies, piped into cakes, or infused in my coffee, I’ll take ’em however I can get ’em. I may not always love the taste — I’m more of a savory eater, and I harbor suspicion of nouveau ice cream flavors in particular — but I respect what these fall creations represent.

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Why? Because a hot, foamy pumpkin latte is the 21st-century version of an unvarnished Trapper Keeper. It’s the adult sensory equivalent of ripping open a fresh packet of erasers on the first day of school and inhaling. At last: a clean slate. The promise of something crisp and new, of oncoming hibernation and comfort. Summer forces us into fun and exposure; fall lets us pull down the shades and renew.

It’s liberating to unburden myself, because pumpkin polarization is a problem.

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These pervasive fall ingredients (pumpkin being the prime offender, but maple, allspice, and nutmeg aren’t far behind) turn ordinary people into curmudgeons and fans into pumpkin pariahs.

I conducted an informal survey soliciting readers’ sentiments about the accompanying hoopla, and responses were heated. Basically, it’s the Taylor Swift of foods.

“I wish I had a Facebook filter, because I don’t even want to read about pumpkin spice,” griped one woman.

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“Giving comfort and safe harbor to nutmeg supremacists is flagrant both-sides-ism and only emboldens their evil cause. You need to name them and disavow them, unequivocally,” wrote another fellow. (I think he was kidding.)

Only yesterday, I received a breathless press release announcing that maple may usurp pumpkin spice’s dominance as fall’s favorite flavor.

“Some experts warn we may be at peak pumpkin spice,” it warned, noting an ominous year-over-year sluggishness in sales.

And, OK, CVS sells pumpkin spice cough drops now, so we might need to draw the line somewhere. Just like you can’t put Betty White in every TV show to make it better, pumpkin is not a panacea for all the world’s ills.

Desperation abounds, and movie-blockbuster-style advertising only fuels the derision. Nightmare Harvest! Stop & Shop just ran a video touting its “Limited Time Originals Flavors,” teasing viewers with a video of a menacing-looking apple-pumpkin hybrid. This year, Dunkin’ Donuts heralded the season — beginning in late August, of course — with the fanfare of a Reese Witherspoon movie, touting a brand-new maple menu and a pumpkin cheesecake spread. Behold, a video of “Dancing Pumpkin Man,” a flexible fellow in a black unitard wearing a pumpkin head, frolicking in fallen leaves. Warning: You may need many pumpkin spice lattes before watching it.

Starbucks opted for a simpler tactic to herald its fall bounty with a gauzy snap of its “PSL” (that’s “pumpkin spice latte” to the uninitiated) with a simple caption: “Finally.”

Such advertising invites scrutiny, and it’s a slippery slope. In-depth articles are devoted to whether the pumpkin you’re buying is actually sweet squash — implying, perhaps, that pumpkin-eaters are misguided drones. Endless memes classify fall fans as “basic,” unadventurous bandwagon-hoppers. No less a cultural authority than People magazine has apparently dipped into parody with a primer on what to wear when buying that first PSL of the season. (I would have guessed a disguise, but People recommends bomber jackets and high-waisted leggings.) In fact, it’s possible to order a T-shirt on Amazon that says, “I Hate Pumpkin Spice Season.”

‘People don’t castigate me for my music preferences. But we do judge and shame people for their food preferences.’

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This is unfair and belies a societal impulse to judge food consumption with an abandon usually reserved for people who hate puppies.

“People don’t castigate me for my music preferences. But we do judge and shame people for their food preferences,” says Stephanie Lucianovic, author of “Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate.”

The backlash might be traced to that watershed year of 2003, with the advent of Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte — its most popular seasonal beverage of all time. As social media has expanded, it has become a sugar-laced shorthand for our base hatreds and impulses.

“It’s gotten to the realm of a joke, just like anything on Twitter that isn’t a national disaster: sports, the Oscars. There are always going to be people annoyed by the sheer amount of talking about a phenomenon or event,” Lucianovic says.

In the world of consumerism, it seems, prevalence directly correlates to disdain.

After all, where’s the hatred for cherry pie or blueberries? Why no snide commentary about, say, garlic scapes or watermelon?

“Well, we don’t have watermelon compound butter or coffee,” Lucianovic offers.

But some probing reveals that, in safer spaces, people are unabashedly fans of fall foods because of what they signify.

“People are enthusiastic for fall in a way that they aren’t about other seasons. Fall is comfortable, and people need a chance to be good and kind to themselves, and to treat themselves,” says Victoria Lai, whose Ice Cream Jubilee shop ships seasonal flavors like sweet potato molasses candy and maple rye pecan nationwide. (Sensing saturation, she will not offer a pumpkin flavor this year.)

At Whole Foods, customers stock up on limited-edition Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake Sandwich Crème cookies for the entire year. It’s a rite of passage.

“I could say we’ve reached peak pumpkin, but honestly, people buy it. There’s a reason why we carry [these items],” says Whole Foods Market vice president Kimberley Rose. And at $3.99 a box, they’re cheaper than therapy.

“Fall strikes a chord,” says chef Ana Sortun, who serves a cult-favorite pumpkin jam at her Cambridge cafe, Sofra, which customers hoard when it appears every year. “It’s iconic. Maybe it’s an emotional thing. As far as I’m concerned, in the months of September and October — especially October, before the frost — it’s this beautiful window of time unlike any other,” she says.

The issue seems to be authenticity. Not every seasonal sensation comes straight from the pumpkin patch or apple orchard.

“Fall flavors that are true to their identity are amazing. It’s the imitation flavors that I feel people don’t like the most. Squashes, apples, pears, and mushrooms are just some of the jewels that sparkle in autumn,” says Marjorie Druker, chef-owner at the New England Soup Factory & Modern Rotisserie.

Fair. But even if you do spring for an artificial swirl time and again, it’s time to consider it an acceptable indulgence.

“Fall is my favorite season, and I will not apologize for my love of pumpkin spice and other fall flavors. I think it’s gotten too much in the past few years and too early in the season. Americans just love to overdo things. That said, Dunkin’ Donuts pumpkin spice is crack, and I will get a few treats of it this fall,” declares proud pumpkin proponent Laura Bickmeier, who also stocks up on Trader Joe’s gluten-free pumpkin pancakes.

In a turbulent world, we deserve refuge — even if such refuge is advertised by a dancing man wearing a pumpkin head.

“You know what? The world sucks. Let people have their pumpkin spice if it makes them happy,” Lucianovic says.

So, go on. Sip your latte. It’s a frivolous leveler to remind us that, no matter what, time marches predictably onward, full of possibility, maple-apple-butter-molasses drizzle and all.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com.
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