Sniff ... sniff ... what's that warm smell floating on the cooling October air? Is it one of the classic aromatic harbingers of fall? Wood smoke, gently decaying leaves, crisp fresh apples? No wait, it's spicier, sweeter, more evocative of something ... else. Something freshly baked, vaguely vegetal, not quite fruity ... oh wait, I know what it is! It's another article about the pumpkin-spicing of absolutely everything! That's what I'm smelling, another pumpkin-spiced article! That's it, pumpkin-spiced article smell! Not pumpkin-spice article smell, because that implies that there's an actual there there, like I'm actually smelling pumpkin and spice, the real stuff. But pumpkin-spiced, because that tells the real story, and that's the point of this story.The story about how something unnatural and just wrong was done to something else; a random, generic-food-product something else, something that had no business messing around with the pumpkin or getting tangled up in it's signature lineup of seasonings. An illicit acquaintance with the associated flavors or smells of what we've all been sold as the flavor of pumpkin and spice (really pumpkin pie flavor). Pumpkin-spiced everything, everywhere.
Pumpkin-spiced is here, it's queer (not really), and it's even in your beer.
If you thought last year was the year of pumpkin-spiced everything, well hold onto your forty-ounce pumpkin-spiced-cheesecake (so wrong) latte, because this year, Foodiness Inc. and it's evil doppleganger Junk Food Inc. have been dipping their magic seasoning wands and fancy flavoring spoons deep into the cauldron of chemically synthesized "pumpkin spice" and drizzling their autumnal artificiality on just about everything! If last year seemed to you saturated and soaked in cinnamon, cloves and molasses ... well, hold on, my friend, we've only just begun...to spice.
This year may be the apogee, the apex, the pumpkin perigee, the breaking point. We may have hit peak pumpkin -- spiced that is. We'll never hit peak pumpkin, because there's rarely any pumpkin IN pumpkin spiced, as we all know. No, what we've hit is the peak of Foodiness fake-out pumpkin spiced "flavor." A pinch of sweet clove, nutmeg and cinnamon flavorings, a spoonful of molasses flavoring, a big pile of sugar, and a dash of artificial burnt-orange color, and voila! Pumpkin-spiced! I won't even bother to list the bottomless trick-or-treat bag full of this year's new products that have gone pumpkin-spiced, let's just say it's long, and includes Oreos. And the Oreos are one of the more benign players ... Did someone say organic pumpkin-spiced, frosted "toaster pastries" at a certain "healthy" chain store that I frequent? No, but I saw them there when I was buying my 19-cent bananas and goat's milk yogurt last night.
You've probably read a dozen articles about this already, as all us outraged cheffy-type food writers are raising our collective burn-scarred, un-manicured fists into the air to denounce the pumpkin-spicing of everything, everywhere! But is anyone talking about pumpkin? Like, the actual food pumpkin, and how important a food staple and crop it was just a mere century ago?
Well this month, I just happen to be re-reading the entire Little House on the Prairie set of books, as I do every decade or so because Laura Ingalls was my pretend BFF back in my suburban Long Island childhood. Oh yeah, Laura and me, we used to hang out (in my head) and compare notes on life in 1876 vs. 1976, and run around in the muddy woods to spite our clean, well-behaved, perfect older sisters. We had a good thing going until I left her for new Junior High friends and she left me for marriage to Almanzo Wilder.
And about Almanzo, (Laura called him "Manly", but I find that embarrassing) Laura wrote a book in the series called Farmer Boy that documented his childhood on a profitable and successful farm in upstate New York, where one year he grew a prize-winning pumpkin for the state fair. Now this wasn't any ordinary mega-pumpkin, remember this was before the widespread use of chemical fertilizers. Those wouldn't come along until after the first world war and by then, Laura was well into adulthood and I'd lost interest. But this pumpkin, which took the blue ribbon, was grown to it's large size and perfect shape by Almanzo ostensibly by feeding it milk. Yes, he raised his pumpkin on milk, by cutting a slit in the stem and placing a bowl of milk underneath it, with a strip of cotton fabric acting as a wick which he inserted into the slit. And he was all freaked out that the judges at the fair would disqualify him for that, but they didn't and sorry about the spoiler, but he wins.
Turns out, the milk-fed method doesn't really work and its an old urban (rural) myth. Pumpkins aren't carnivorous or even lacto-vegetarian, it was just a big waste of milk that makes for a good story.
Now what does this have to do with pumpkin-spiced everything? Well, nothing. Except that after the fair they took the prize pumpkin home, butchered it, and ate it. Some of it was cooked into pulp and canned for the winter, some was fed to the livestock along with the seeds, some was cooked fresh, and nothing, of course, was wasted. Now, did Mrs. Wilder (the first one, not Laura) add any spices to her pumpkin? Of course! She pumpkin-spiced her pumpkin too, in the pies and preserves and stewed bowls of pumpkin they ate all winter. But did it taste primarily of pumpkin, and not corn syrup and artificial flavors? Well duh, yeah. It was the 1870's, decades to go before Foodiness reared it's ugly mug and convinced us that it's the spiced, not the pumpkin, that makes the flavor.
The balance was totally shifted toward the pumpkin, the spices and sugar were just little luxuries, so to speak. If they'd run out of sugar and cloves, would they have eaten it? Hell yes. Who'd waste a giant pile of nutrition like that? Pumpkin provided vitamin A, beta-carotene, fiber, important stuff in colder, northern climes like theirs. Those Wilders were no dummies, despite that milk-feeding silliness ...
A later book in the series, The Long Winter details Laura's family's ordeal in the winter of 1880-1881, which was, and still remains, the worst documented winter in history in the Dakotas. It started to snow in September and didn't stop until April and everybody in the town almost starved to death. So when they realize that winter has come like two months early they hurry to pull up all the potatoes and carrots and turnips, way early, and pick the pumpkins, even the green ones. And Ma, aka Caroline Ingalls, in her clever, practical prairie way, (the real Pioneer woman) makes green pumpkin preserves and a green pumpkin pie as a surprise for Pa. See how industrious they were? But, because its a green pumpkin she does add a lot of sugar and typical pumpkin pie spices to the mix, because it hasn't developed and natural sweetness or turned bright orange yet, and Pa thinks it's apple pie and is shocked because there are no apple trees on the prairie, there are no TREES period on the prairie. But no Pa! It's green pumpkin! Ma's a genius! So big warm, fuzzy yuks all around, and everyone is happy that they are inside, eating pie together and not dead of typhoid. That comes later. Well...not really, starvation and almost freezing to death come later.
But my point is ... they ate that pumpkin. as a vegetable, as a fruit, as a preserve and a conserve and a pie filling and as animal feed. They probably got pretty sick of it too, but they didn't really have much choice. By the end of the winter all they had left to eat was cornmeal mush and molasses, for every meal, every day. That would have sucked. And I bet that today, on the exact spot where they were miserably eating that 900th bowl of mush, there's now a mega-market there, or a warehouse store, and the shelves are just exploding with pumpkin-spiced flavored coffee creamer and pumpkin-spiced flavored cake-mix and pumpkin-spiced flavored pancake mix and pumpkin-spiced flavored pancake syrup and pumpkin-spiced flavored diet fat-free yogurt and pumpkin-spiced flavored dog treats and pumpkin-spiced flavored shampoo...because we have a pretty short memory here in the land of the grand slam breakfast, and we forget that pumpkin ... isn't pumpkin spice.
It's like in a hundred years, we've gone from eating the pumpkin...with maybe a little sugar and spice added if we had any, and just accepting the pumpkin-ness of it, to just eating the sugar and spices associated with it and pretending that it's pumpkin. It's like the Beatlemania of vegetables (fruit, technically). Not the real pumpkin, but an incredible simulation. Who needs the real thing?
But what would happen, if that little massive-mart on the prairie, with it's shelves and rows and bins of pumpkin-spiced flavored Foodiness burned down? Or if the warehouse store blew away in a blizzard, and the next spring someone was picking through the rubble and found a packet of pumpkin seeds and planted them and poured some milk over them. And in October a giant patch of pumpkins suddenly grew where once was just acres of retail plenty? What would people do? Would they know how to deal with the pumpkins? Would they eat them? I guess if all the fast-food spots and drive thru's and pancake huts had blown up in the apocalypse too, and folks were getting desperate, I guess they'd eat the pumpkins. And boy, would I kill to be there with my little cassette recorder that I taught Laura to use in 1978, to record the collective gagging and retching sound when the people bit into those pumpkins and realized that they tasted nothing like a pumpkin-spiced-crappuccino-jelly-donut-latte, nothing. And more like a slimy raw potato, but stringier. I'd laugh. And then I'd eat some more pumpkin. I like it. It's food.
Oh and if you have no idea what Beatlemania is, just ask Laura to ask Google for you, she can do it now, because I think she just teleported back to the prairie with my new I-phone. Joke's on her though, I mean, what's she gonna charge it with, milk?