Food For Thought: What's Nice About Pumpkin Spice?
Our love/hate relationship with the ubiquitous autumn flavour
Some people relish this time of year. The kids are back at school, the garden is mostly harvested, and the catch-as-catch-can routines of the summer return to a steady rhythm. In some ways, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
You know what sets my teeth on edge about the fall? Pumpkin spice. Not pumpkin spice itself, but the idea of it.
The coffee shops and stores are full of it. Even the dollar stores have pumpkin spice candles. And the weird thing? There’s no pumpkin in pumpkin spice. It really has very little to do with the harvest at home at all.
Pumpkin spice is a blend of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and depending on your spice orientation a little allspice or cardamom or both. How does that inspire such a backlash? What makes some people adore pumpkin spice and what makes others rage about it so?
I Googled this: “Why do people hate pumpkin spice?” And boy did I get a ear/eye full.
If you were to do the same thing you’d find discussions on pop culture websites and threads on Reddit. You’ll find every argument from all the culture wars all tied up into the flavour of a pumpkin pie.
But here’s the one the resonates with me: Pumpkin spice is our worst fears about consumer culture.
Pumpkin spice, and the marketing of pumpkin spice, pushes what many people reject about how corporations and influencers get us to buy stuff. It falls in the same category as Halloween decorations appearing in August and overpriced Mothers’ Day brunches.
We know the great marketing machines are trying to sell us stuff, but we still get caught up in it. Even those of us who reject Valentine’s Day as a made-up holiday to sell us flowers and candy still feel the need to come up with something for our sweetie. We may think the Elf On The Shelf is a stupid idea that creates more work for parents, but if the kids have friends who have one there’s a good change we’ll probably cave. We don’t get the appeal of getting dressed up and fighting for reservations for New Year’s Eve but we feel a little lonely to have no plans at all.
Such is the insidious nature of marketing - inject a little dissatisfaction, or even just doubt, into our lives, the cure for which is buying something. FOMO indeed.
Not long ago (historically speaking, that is) our lives were regulated by the changing of the seasons. The rhythms of agricultural life are behind most of us and central heating, electricity and robust Wi-fi renders many of the proscriptions of weather rather moot. But deeply programmed in our human brains is a need for rituals and rhythms and the marketing machine is happy to provide them.
And of course, they never ask us to spend a lot, do they? Seasonal products are almost always at the level of an impulse buy - a card, a package of cinnamon hearts, a peppermint latte, and poorly-made towels covered with dancing reindeer. Add a little urgency of “limited time”, “while supplies last” and “get them before they’re gone!” and it’s hard to resist. What’s the harm though? It’s just a treat, a little something to get us in the spirit, right?
The harm is that we get conditioned to the idea that “celebrating” something means buying something. The marketing machine is happy to oblige.
So we buy things we don’t need because we are desperate to mark the passage of time, time that was actually pretty hard to mark the last few years. The marketing machine makes us yearn for the simple, but simple has a price tag attached. And that’s what’s at the root of the “Basic” stereotype, isn’t it? Liking things because we told we’re supposed to like them, not only without thinking critically, but actually internalizing the shallow marketing values behind the product.
If you feel the need to buy something there is no simple value attached. It’s marketing appealing to a nostalgia for a time that’s never existed.
So have a pumpkin spiced latte if you like it - there’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about it. I don’t get the lattes, but I do like some pie. I like mine with a hefty dose of cardamom. And if there’s something you truly enjoy have it no matter the season. It’s a good argument for learning to DIY - the marketing machine can’t take it away from you if you make it yourself.
There’s meaning without hype or urgency. If you like pumpkin spice please truly enjoy it, but just remember it’s no marker of the passage of time.