String the two words “pumpkin” and “spice” together, and you’re left with one delicious thought: fall. The flavor appears beyond pumpkin pies, breads, and even the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte, as seasoning infuses just about every food and drink that can’t be nailed down.
Two years ago, my mom and one of our closest family friends got into a battle of commercially autumn-ized foods. From mid-August to the end of October, each time they came across a new pumpkin spice item, they bought two; one to try, and one to give the other person. It wasn’t difficult to do. That year I realized the enormous scope of pumpkin spice. The ambiguous flavor had seeped its way into every corner of the food market.
Both in and out of grocery aisles, pumpkin spice represents the commodification of an entire season. One night, between laughs, my Dad reported to the family that an auto repair shop he passed daily had a new sign, boasting, “We now offer pumpkin spice motor oil!” If you can’t beat them, join them, right?
I labelled pumpkin spice “ambiguous” only because nearly every time it appears in a processed seasonal food, it seems to have a different presence. Some versions place greater emphasis on the squash-like essence of pumpkin itself, and others play up the cinnamon with a whisper of pumpkin afterward. Given the context, a world in which a person can find pumpkin spice in everything from Cheerios to KitKats to Silk almond milk, the seasoning starts to resemble a marketing ploy more than a genuine flavor. Pumpkin isn’t exactly honored in Quaker brand’s Pumpkin Spice oatmeal, a product that could only be bothered to list “spices” as an ingredient with no mention of actual pumpkin whatsoever. Images of the orange gourd, however, are carefully printed across the packaging. This makes sense, seeing as companies are probably more focused on selling the idea of fall over nailing the accuracy of the spice blend.
Every year I buy pumpkin spice coffee creamer, and every year I’m disappointed. Maybe this says more about me than it does about International Delight. On the other hand, I would argue that something is missing from the creamer. The “natural and artificial flavors” are fine, but they don’t hold a candle to the experience of sprinkling pure pumpkin spice directly into a mug.
When I came across a plastic McCormick container in our spice drawer, labelled “Pumpkin Pie Spice,” my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I was under the tragic, misinformed impression that “pumpkin spice” refers to a concoction of flavors which each brand designs for itself. “So it’s real?” I wondered to myself. I thought pumpkin spice was the invention of advertising campaigns, an ever-changing mix of spices which companies deemed autumnal enough to sell as such.
Pumpkin spice has developed a bit of a bad rep. Sucked into a whirlpool of commercialism (the same way every processed food comes in peppermint after November), it can be hard to separate pumpkin spice from consumer culture. This is at no fault of the flavor itself, which is a sweet, nostalgia-evoking way to add dimension to fall dishes. The only elementary quality of pumpkin spice is the fact that so many companies have attempted to streamline it, and some have cut corners in the process.
Even back in 2017, Forbes wrote, “With the over-saturation of players now trying to take advantage of our insatiable, sweet appetite, there are also speculations that we may be at ‘peak spice.’ The numbers are starting to justify that claim, too. Analytics company, 1010data saw that from August to December of last year … there were 50% more [pumpkin spice] products offered by companies, but sales climbed a meager 21%.”
Is pumpkin spice exhaustion a thing? I wouldn’t know. I literally go weak at the knees at the first pumpkin-flavored product I see in stores––and then I buy it. I love fall, and I’m a sucker for strategic marketing. What I’m realizing is that I’ve lost sight of what actually constitutes pumpkin spice. What is most unfortunate about the boom in this seasoning is what has been lost as a result.
So what’s a consumer to do if they want to embrace the flavor authentically? My unsolicited advice would be to separate the parade of products resembling pumpkin spice with a staple you can hold onto year-round. Either invest in McCormick Pumpkin Pie Spice, a jar of Simply Organic’s Pumpkin Spice, or whip up your own––all you need is four to five ingredients. After cross-referencing recipes, I found that cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg are all essential. You can choose whether to add cloves, allspice, or both, but definitely pick at least one.
This way, you can choose which companies to rely on when it comes to getting the flavor right. And if anyone falls short? You need only head to your drawer to find your own stash of guaranteed fall infusion––no gimmicks, no false advertising, just a cozy and fine-tuned blend of spices.