Throw pumpkin spice into the pile of things that once served as cultural markers but are now read as neutral: denim and tattoos, for example, were once reserved for the counterculture, but now they’re just as at home on the PTA as they are in the demimonde. Punk music now sells minivans.
So it is with pumpkin spice, which used to be seen as part of a lifestyle choice, a signifier of the taste’s most ardent acolytes: women (usually white, usually with impeccable highlights) who loved brunch and cozy sweaters and pick their own apple orchards and painted plates in their kitchens reminding them to dream. Now the pumpkin spice season arrives like any other meteorological phenomenon. It’s there for everyone, whether you like it or not.
Pickle pizza started as a novelty but has now become a big dill
“You’re bound to come across something with pumpkin spice, maybe pancakes or a seasonal drink,” says Melanie Zanoza Bartelme, who tracks food trends for market research firm Mintel. “You can’t get around it, so you don’t have to be ashamed to enjoy it. It’s here. It’s all around us.”
Emily Contois, an assistant professor at the University of Tulsa who studies food and media, compared the mainstreaming of taste to that of Uggs, those fuzzy-lined boots that make their wearers look like they have baked potatoes on their feet. Ultra trendy in the late 1990s and early s, they were quickly written off by the fashion elite to ironically revive every now and then. Now it’s just another brand. “It was either, ‘Oh, that’s a bubble that’s going to burst,’ or ‘We’ll never wear these again,'” she says. “But then these boots became a part of our lives.”
Some cynics inevitably still scorn those who embrace #pumpkinspiceSZN with Instagram delight, but along with the social media mockery, there’s another mindset that seems to stem from the near-universal slog of recent years: maybe just let it go ? If a PSL isn’t your thing, just order your regular latte. Or not. Do you.
As one proponent of that stance warned on Twitter on the day of the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte debut: “Y’ALL, listen to me. There will be NO pumpkin spice slander today. Today we are going to let people enjoy things! !!!”
“Who cares if someone is excited about a Taylor Swift album or a pumpkin spice latte?” another wrote. “Let people feel joy and leave them alone.”
It’s not your imagination: Pumpkin Spice products are really on the rise. According to NielsenIQ data, they had more than $231 million in sales last year, up nearly 27 percent from the previous year. This season, Oreo is offering a temporary pumpkin spice flavor for the first time since 2017.
The taste is mostly concentrated in the breakfast category, which makes sense given its barista-based origins. You’ll find it in cereals (including Special K, Frosted Mini-Wheats, and Cheerios), baked goods (Thomas bagels and English muffins and Pillsbury Grands), and yogurt (Chobani, Siggi’s, and Oui). Coffee creamers and cold brews abound. During my recent shopping trips in the Washington area, I didn’t see any of the new products that marked the peak pumpkin spice heyday. Not spam, for example, or chips, which I took as a sign of the flavor’s journey along trendiness.
No one bases their personality on choosing strawberry ice cream over chocolate, or assigns a persona to those who do. So how did pumpkin spice take its place on the list of flavors you can enjoy without turning it into something big? Let’s go back to the old days of 2003 when Starbucks introduced its seasonal latte, infused with the warming flavors of baking spices.
As its popularity spread on the then-nascent social media feeds, “pumpkin spice became the ultimate symbol of basicity,” as my colleague Maura Judkis noted in 2017. Eventually, the Basic Beckys of the world embraced it as their totem, celebrated on shirts and mugs with statements like “you had me by pumpkin spice.”
I used all the pumpkin spice. Now my armpits smell like nutmeg.
Nearly two decades later, we’re in the fourth wave of pumpkin spice, where one can order a pumpkin spiced cold brew without baggage or irony, thanks, of course, to those early pioneers, but also to the vagaries of human nature and the food marketers who understand it. It seems there was an opportunity for an early fall flavor, somewhere between the bright fruits of summer and the looming array of holiday flavors, from peppermint to gingerbread.
Nature – and capitalism – abhors a vacuum. “There was an opening,” says Bartelme. Having a taste to gravitate towards when summer comes to an end can be comforting, she says. “It’s a kind of compensation. Pumpkin Spice says, ‘Warm me up, hold me in your coffee arms and tell me everything’s going to be okay.’”
Contois offers a grittier explanation for that seasonal appeal. As climate change results in summers with record heat and violent storms, she notes, the idea of autumn evoking the flavors of pumpkin spice is increasingly comforting. “We have those unforgiving summers that are uncomfortable and dangerous, which is why we crave cool air and crunchy leaves,” she says. “That desire is real.”
A more obvious reason why it caught on? Well, pumpkin spice, with its blend of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, is actually pretty good in terms of flavor profile.
In late August, I started scouring supermarket shelves, looking for the telltale burnt umber notes of pumpkin spice wrappers. I collected over a dozen items and tasted them in a few days, hoping that the husky spices and warming textures they promised would somehow transport me away from my current reality, where the AC isn’t strong enough. for the soup -moist, over 90 air around me and the last word I would use to describe my attitude is ‘revived’.
As it turns out, while pumpkin spice is perfectly fine, it doesn’t necessarily elevate the medium it conveys. I’ve always liked Frosted Mini-Wheats. The seasonal version, although aggressively colored with orange glaze, was a nice change. I am a fan of Greek yogurt and I enjoyed Chobani’s nutmeg forward version. A buttered Thomas English muffin and a mug of Harney & Sons tea—both spiked with a gentle baking spice sweet—was a delicious afternoon snack, one I might have picked for a cool afternoon even if I wasn’t on this bizarre mission.
Here’s our recipe for pumpkin spice mix that you can make at home
On the other hand, I generally avoid Starbucks coffee and its bitter sting, and the assertive pumpkin-spiced iterations of its beans and cold brew haven’t changed my mind. I even tried throwing in pumpkin spiced creamers from Coffee Mate and Starbucks, and they definitely didn’t help. But again, I prefer regular milk in my coffee. Do you like Oreos? Then you’ll probably appreciate their fall incarnation, the spicy scent of which lingered on my hands long after I polished them.
All in all, my experiment didn’t leave me alone, just cold. Not in temperature of course. As I write this, I’m putting my hair in a damp quiff and considering getting a fan from upstairs. But it did teach me a lesson: As appealing as pumpkin spices are, they can’t mask the true nature of anything. Its enchantment isn’t even enough to convince me that cooler, more pleasant days lie ahead. But I’m fine with still marinating in the late summer heat and its foods like the last plump red tomatoes and buttered corn and burgers on the grill.
And while I enjoy that, I’ll just enjoy pumpkin spice as a bit of popular monoculture in these hectic times. I’m not alone in that thought. Recently, Bartelme saw a gas station near her house where they ‘change pumpkin spice oil’, and that made her smile. “We’re all in on the joke now.”