Fall is in full swing in the United States, and, for the past few years, that has meant one thing: pumpkin-flavored food, everywhere you look.
From pumpkin doughnuts to pumpkin beer, this once humble gourd has swiftly dominated the hearts and bellies of American consumers. And it’s not just for fancy bistros and snooty cafes: nearly 1/3 of 250 largest chain restaurants featured pumpkin-flavored food in the fall of 2012. You can find pumpkin products at McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. There are pumpkin-flavored Pop Tarts, pumpkin Pringles and pumpkin M&M’s. Pumpkin, in other words, has gone mainstream.
You can probably thank Starbucks for that. In 2003, they introduced the seasonal pumpkin spice latte. And, in the decade since, the company has sold over 200 million of them, making the drink the chain’s most popular seasonal offering.
But there’s something a little strange about this annual pumpkin hoopla: many of these products, including the pumpkin spice latte, don’t actually have any real pumpkin in them. That flavor is made up in a lab, and you’re actually tasting the spices more than the actual fruit. And, the ones that do have real pumpkin, well, they’re akin to the stuff you get in the can.
Before the last decade , it’s not a real stretch to say that many modern Americans rarely, or never, ate pumpkin outside of pumpkin pie. We associate the flavor of pumpkin with the spices added to pumpkin pie. Don’t be too shocked, but pumpkins don’t grow out of the ground tasting of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and/or allspice! Though, of course, you’d never guess it based on the pumpkin products on store shelves and menus.
Sure, making pumpkin sweets, especially pie, from the real thing is a huge pain. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of fruit, to emulate the canned alternatives. Real pumpkins can’t always be counted on for their flavor, either. It’s no surprise that even the most eco-friendly, locally-minded and fresh food-loving bakers use canned pumpkin. It can be a huge hassle, and the end result isn’t always as good as a pie made from canned pumpkin.
But, at the same time, I can’t help but find it a little strange. Pumpkin is this nostalgic food, this food that perfectly evokes seasonal eating, but much of the pumpkin foods we consume don’t even have the very food we’re talking about. We’re thinking of the artificial pumpkin flavor, or the spices in pies, or the fruit perfectly prepared and canned. I don’t know about you, but that sure says a lot to me about American food culture.