Thoughts on America’s Creepy Pumpkin-Spice Obsession

It was 2 p.m. on the first day of fall break and I was in bed, eating a package of Pumpkin Spice Oreos that had magically appeared in my room for breakfast. As I bit into my fourth or fifth cookie, I wondered how we’d arrived at this point as a society; not my waking up at two or even the fact that I was eating cookies for breakfast, but how something so alien-looking and orange had become a thing.

I was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed. Something was inexplicably addictive about the taste of the spice blend (or, chemical blend, more accurately) and its creamy texture. How did we end up shoving a synthetic feeling of autumn into something as simple and pure as an Oreo?

Finding pumpkin spice flavoring in things other than pumpkin pie isn’t an extremely new trend. The infamous Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte (or “PSL”) was introduced in 2003 as a seasonal drink and was met with huge success. The company even reported a significant bump in their 4th quarter sales, likely due to the introduction of the new beverage.

While I’ve never tried it myself, the PSL become a sort of cultural phenomenon, even if it is now intrinsically tied to being ‘basic’. For those who love it, it is an annual staple marking the changing of the seasons, even if you live in a part of the country where the leaves don’t change or it never drops below 80 degrees.

Since the advent of the PSL, pumpkin spice flavoring has only been on the rise, demonstrating an insatiable American hunger for all things pumpkin. In 2014, Forbes reported that sales of pumpkin spice-flavored items increased by 14 percent and Mintel reported that pumpkin as an ingredient in beverages has grown 130 percent since 2006.

In alcoholic beverages especially, like beer and vodka, pumpkin spice is becoming increasingly common. It is exceedingly rare that these beverages have any actual pumpkin in them, though, as they usually resort to a combination of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg flavorings that conjure up the pumpkin pie taste.

I observed this trend when I walked into the Claremont Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago, finding every aisle boasting some sort of pumpkin spice-flavored item: cereal, pancakes, dog treats, bagels, yogurt, coffee, and infuriatingly, salsa. In fact, Trader Joe’s boasts a stock of around 60 products graced with pumpkin spice aroma or flavors. The absurdity doesn’t end here, with pumpkin spice Pringles and soy milk rounding out the maddening ubiquity of this seasonal flavor-craze.

Why do we surround ourselves with so much food related to this strange, orange vegetable? For some, pumpkins represent a nostalgia for an idyllic, rural way of life that became far rarer as America industrialized. The pumpkin’s presence as a decoration on stoops, in desserts, and as a flavoring helps recreate an archaic image of the traditional autumn harvest we often associate with this time of year.

Even 21st-century college students in the Southern Californian desert can experience the essence of something so far away in both geography and time by biting into a chemically-rendered food product. Large businesses have found a way to capitalize on this, and they will probably continue to do so.

For me, the taste reminds me of family trips to the pumpkin patch and apple orchard just a few blocks away from our New England home. However out of place or wrong pumpkin spice feels in an Oreo or a Pringle, I still taste a hint of childhood nostalgia. I can’t vouch for the salsa, though.

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