Dining A La King: How did pumpkin get so hip?

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By: Marshall V. King
mking@flavor574.com

Marshall V. King/Flavor574

The Great Pumpkin might not be real, but the popularity of the orange orb has risen as high as ever.

The popularity of pumpkin and the spices that often go with it has been climbing. This trend has grown like a record-setting, one-ton gourd. Restaurants and eateries are competing with pumpkin variations now.

At Trader Joe’s in Indianapolis the other day, a set of shelves at the end of the aisle were filled with all things pumpkin.

Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte, found with the hashtag #PSL, originated in 2003 and became a social media and sales star.

IHOP added pumpkin coffee this year to its pumpkin pancakes available through Jan. 3.

Not everyone is a fan of pumpkin or the spice combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, but the fervor with which some people are seeking them out has created a frenzy of products.

Now corporations are touting “real pumpkin” as part of the drinks. What does it say about us that pumpkin spice latte became such a phenomenon without that?

I’ve always been a pumpkin fan, though technically I’d rather cook with butternut squash than pumpkin. Cut one of those in half, scoop out the seeds and bake it until soft.

I’ve been known to put a couple of tablespoons of canned pumpkin in a batch of oatmeal. I’d love to make a batch of baked oatmeal with the same treatment.

I love cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. They can work in savory or sweet settings. But I fear they’re becoming the new bacon, the new flavor that will jump into foods in which they really don’t belong. I’d struggle with a pumpkin spice pizza.

The bigger question really is why pumpkin got so cool.

Here are a few theories, hammered out with the help of Flavor 574 editor Danielle Waldron and 953MNC.com editor Krystal Vivian:

  1. Fall is in and so are the flavors. People have often liked the third season of the year, but it’s particularly hip right now. Style that includes lumberjack beards, tasteful flannel and high boots became trendy. And the season that includes apples, pumpkins and cider did, too.
  2. Pumpkin is a comfort food. Pumpkin pie reminds us of mom, the holidays and home. After a summer of grilling and boating, pumpkin flavors seem new again and remind us of what’s to come in the next few months.
  3. It’s a trend and that leads to an explosion of products. Customers respond when people turn foods they know into products they buy. Manufacturers look to cash in on the trend before moving on to the next one.

I’ve been known to bash PSL. It’s a coffee drink for people who want to taste something other than coffee. It’s sweet and has those aforementioned spices. But for the sake of research on behalf of our readers, we gave it another try this week.

Waldron, Vivian and I sampled a Starbucks PSL. The spices were chunky in the cup. The flavor coated our tongues in an unpleasant way.

But following the lead of the manufacturers who fiddle, I did, too. I ordered a chai latte with pumpkin spices, which Vivian suggested. It was actually good. It’s a chunk of calories to consume, but it was good.

Nearly as good was a PSL with less pumpkin syrup, which made it both less sweet and intense and you could, gasp, actually taste the coffee.

I do have to agree somewhat with Karen Attiah of the Washington Post, who wrote last week that it’s time to back off of the trend.

“Seriously, all of this is getting embarrassing. These companies are desperately preying on our desire to mark the arrival of the holidays. It’s not even about the pumpkin. It’s that the spices literally make us feel all warm and cozy as the temperature drops,” she wrote.

I can now return to my cups of black coffee, perhaps with a dash of cinnamon, knowing that I really don’t like PSLs enough to drink it regularly.

I’ll gladly eat the pumpkin pancakes at Old Style Deli. I’ll relish pumpkin in a variety of forms, though I’m waiting for people to reinvent pumpkin pie and make it something less predictable. I mean, when was the last time you had a bite of pumpkin pie that made you go, “Wow!”

I’m fine with playing around with pumpkin to create new dishes — sweet or savory. But let’s keep the flavor and the spices in their place.

And if you can’t stand pumpkin or the spices, don’t worry. It’s a trend. It’ll be gone before you know it.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.

 

Marshall V. King is food columnist for Flavor 574 and community editor for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, mking@flavor574.com, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
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