Pumpkin spice is here to stay. It’s time to accept it and move on.


This week, Starbucks began selling its seasonal pumpkin spice lattes, an annual event that has become the symbolic starting gun for the crisp, fluid, cable-knit autumn in our collective imagination. Never mind that the summer sweat is still rolling down our backs.

But something feels different this year as we look through the aisles of the grocery store, which is already loaded with an ever-growing selection of cookie dough and cocoa mixes and candles scented with cloves and allspice. The mood, it seems, has changed for pumpkin spice. Or rather, it seems that pumpkin spice is no longer a recognizable mood. Instead, it’s just inevitable. Like death, taxes and new Taylor Swift albums, pumpkin spice is now just part of the human condition.

Throw pumpkin spice into the pile of things that once functioned as cultural markers but are now read as neutral: Denim and tattoos, for example, were once the preserve of the counterculture, but now they’re just as at home in the PTA as in the demimonde . Punk music now sells minivans.

Then there’s pumpkin spice, which used to be seen as part of a lifestyle choice, a nod to the flavor’s most ardent acolytes: women (mostly white, mostly with flawless highlights) who loved brunch and cozy sweaters and pick-your-own -own apple orchards and painted signs in the kitchen reminding them to dream. Now comes the pumpkin spice season like any other meteorological phenomenon. It’s here for everyone, whether you like it or not.

Pickle pizza started as a novelty, but it has now become a big deal

“You’re bound to come across something pumpkin spice, maybe pancakes or a seasonal drink,” says Melanie Zanoza Bartelme, who tracks food trends for market research firm Mintel. “You can’t avoid it, so you don’t have to be embarrassed about enjoying it. It’s here. It is all around us.”

Emily Contois, an assistant professor at the University of Tulsa who studies food and media, compared the flavor’s mainstreaming to that of Uggs, the fluffy-lined boots that make wearers look like they’ve got baked potatoes for their feet. Ultra-trendy in the late 1990s and early 1990s, they were soon written off by the fashion elite, only to be ironically revived periodically. Now they are just another brand. “It was either, ‘Oh, it’s a bubble that’s going to burst,’ or, ‘We’re never wearing these again,'” she says. “But then these boots became a part of our lives.”

Some cynics inevitably still scorn those who embrace #pumpkinspiceSZN with Instagram gusto, but alongside mockery on social media, there’s another mindset that seems borne of the near-universal catchphrase of recent years: Maybe just let it go? If a PSL isn’t your thing, just order your regular latte. Or not. Do you.

As one advocate of that stance warned on Twitter on the day of Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte debut: “Guys, listen to me. There will be NO pumpkin spice slander today. Today we are going to let people enjoy things!!!!”

“Who cares if someone is excited about a Taylor Swift album or a pumpkin spice latte?” wrote another. “Let people feel joy and leave them alone.”

It’s not your imagination: Pumpkin spice products are really spreading. They accounted for more than $231 million in sales last year, according to NielsenIQ data, up nearly 27 percent from the previous year. This season, Oreo is offering a limited-time pumpkin spice flavor for the first time since 2017.

The flavor is particularly concentrated in the breakfast category, which makes sense given its barista-borne origins. You’ll find it in cereals (including Special K, Frosted Mini-Wheats, and Cheerios), baked goods (Thomas bagels and English muffins, and Pillsbury Grands), and yogurt (Chobani, Siggi’s, and Oui). Coffee creamers and cold brews abound. In my recent shopping sprees in the Washington area, I saw none of the novelties marking the heyday of peak pumpkin spice. No spam, for example, or potato chips, which I took as a sign of taste’s journey beyond trendiness.

No one bases their personality on preferring strawberry ice cream to chocolate, or attributes a persona to those who do. So how did pumpkin spice earn its own place on the list of flavors you can enjoy without making a big deal out of it? Let’s go back for a moment to the good old days of 2003, when Starbucks introduced its seasonal latte infused with the warming flavors of baking spices.

As its popularity spread on then-nascent social media streams, “pumpkin spice became the ultimate symbol of the basics,” as my colleague Maura Judkis noted in 2017. Eventually, the Basic Beckys of the world embraced it as their totem, celebrated on shirts and saying mugs like “you had me on pumpkin spice”.

I used all pumpkin spice. Now my armpits smell like nutmeg.

Nearly two decades later, we’re in the fourth wave of pumpkin spice, where you can order a pumpkin-spiced cold brew without baggage or irony, thanks to the early pioneers, of course, but also thanks to the whims of human nature and the food marketers who understand it. It seems there was an opportunity for an early fall flavor, positioned somewhere between the bright fruits of summer and the looming array of holiday flavors, from peppermint to gingerbread.

Nature – and capitalism – abhors a vacuum. “It was an opening,” says Bartelme. Having a taste to draw on when the summer is over can be comforting, she says. “It’s a kind of compensation. Pumpkin Spice says, “Warm me up, hold me in your coffee arms and tell me everything is going to be okay.”

Contois offers a grimmer explanation for the seasonal appeal. As climate change results in summers of record heat and violent storms, she notes, the idea of ​​autumn conjuring flavors of pumpkin spice is increasingly reassuring. “We have these brutal summers that are uncomfortable and dangerous, so we long for the cool air and crunchy leaves,” she says. “That longing is real.”

A more reasonable reason why it has caught on? Well, pumpkin spice, with its mix of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, is actually pretty good in terms of a flavor profile.

In late August, I began skimming the grocery shelves, seeking out the distinctly burnt tones of pumpkin spice packaging. I collected more than a dozen items and sampled them over the course of a few days, hoping that the husky spices and warming textures they promised would somehow transport me from my current reality, where the AC isn’t quite strong enough to the soup. -Humid, 90 plus air around me, and the last word I would use to describe my attitude is “renewed.”

It turns out that while pumpkin spice is perfect, it doesn’t necessarily elevate the medium that conveys it. I’ve always liked Frosted Mini-Wheats. The seasonal version, although aggressively colored with orange frosting, was a nice change. I’m a fan of Greek yogurt, and I liked Chobani’s nutmeg-forward version. A buttered Thomas English muffin and a mug of Harney & Sons tea – both with mild baking spice sweetness – was a lovely afternoon snack, one I might have chosen for a chilly afternoon even if I wasn’t on this bizarre mission.

Here is our recipe for pumpkin spice mix that you can make at home

On the other hand, I generally avoid Starbucks coffee and its bitter sting, and the confidently pumpkin-spiced iterations of beans and cold brew did nothing to change my mind. I even tried throwing in pumpkin spiced creamers from Coffee Mate and Starbucks and they definitely didn’t help. But then again, I prefer regular milk in my coffee. Do you like Oreos? Then you’ll probably appreciate their autumnal incarnation, whose spicy scent clung to my hands long after I polished them off.

All told, my experiment didn’t comfort me, just cold. Not temperature-wise, of course. As I write this, I’m scooping my hair up into a damp top knot and considering fetching a fan from above. But it taught me a lesson: No matter how appealing, pumpkin spice can’t mask the true nature of something. The curse isn’t even enough to convince me that cooler, nicer days are just ahead. But I’m still fine marinating in the late summer heat and food like the last of the fat red tomatoes and buttered corn and hamburgers on the grill.

And while I enjoy them, I just want to enjoy pumpkin spice as a bit of a popular monoculture in these troubled times. I am not alone in that thought. Recently, Bartelme discovered a gas station near her home that offers “pumpkin spice oil changes,” and it made her smile. “We’re all in on the joke now.”

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