Pumpkin Spice Invades America

Acorn and Carnival Squash (Photo By: Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News)
Acorn and Carnival Squash (Photo By: Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News)

When people think of pumpkin, it is no longer what’s in your Thanksgiving pie.

The fall-time flavor has crept into coffee, gum, breakfast confections and snacks, what is next for the national phenomenon?

For nearly three months out of the year, pumpkin spice dominates the food market with new variations popping up as quickly as the gourds themselves. Oreo’s traditional white filling has become fluorescent orange, breakfast cereal is glazed with pumpkin spice frosting, cream cheese and bagels resemble an autumn confection, gum suddenly tastes like a slice of pumpkin pie, and even beer glows orange during the fall season.

Since Starbucks announced it would be adding “real pumpkin” to their iconic beverage on Sept. 8, the public is searching for authentic pumpkin flavor.

Peter Duke, director of Espresso Americas for Starbucks, explains that the pumpkin spice latte recipe has remained unchanged since its birth in 2003 — until this year that is.

The latte’s tawny hue now makes up a mixture of espresso, milk, pumpkin spice flavored sauce with condensed skim milk and pumpkin puree, the brand’s classic vanilla syrup, topped with whipped cream and dusted with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clove.

Niche holiday drinks such as the peppermint mocha and eggnog latte pale in comparison to the popularity of the pumpkin spice variation. The latte has even garnered its own Instagram, acronym and has become the portrait for American youth.

Samantha Jones, a student at the University of Arizona, enjoys the sweet and spicy latte because it reminds her of the fall season. She makes sure to snag a latte during its short season of availably.

But not everyone is fawning over the sweet concoction. Sydney Reed, a Starbucks customer, has become perplexed by the latte’s growing trend

“I don’t really understand where all the hype comes from,” she said. “Is it really even that good?”

University of Arizona students, Sydney Reed and Samantha Jones (Photo By: Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News)
University of Arizona students, Sydney Reed and Samantha Jones (Photo By: Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News)

Reed has been bombarded with an excess of pumpkin spice oriented foods during her weekly shopping trips. Although she enjoys pumpkin bread and pumpkin cheesecake, she wishes that there were more options with less sugar and more pumpkin flavor available in the marketplace.

”Most of the flavor [in the PSL] isn’t coming from pumpkin at all, you just taste the various spices and sugar,” said Chad Borseth of Native Seeds, a nonprofit seed conservatory.

Pumpkin isn’t the only gourd that packs a punch for autumn. Borseth favors using variations of winter squash and spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg in savory dishes to season the fall.

Varieties of squash such as the Ha:l, are native to the arid desert landscape of the Tohono O’odham Nation, which is just west of Tucson.

The Ha:l’s plump bases rest in the soil and their voluptuous curves form into a slender neck. Their smooth skin is speckled with green, mustard, soft yellows and burnt orange, which is mixed almost like dabs of watercolor on canvas.

Borseth explains that as the Ha:l and other winter squash varieties grow their tender, sweet flesh develops into a depth of rich flavor with a dense exterior.

The Ha:l was traditionally cut into long spirals and dried in the sun for optimal preservation throughout the year.

The versatile vegetable adds a hearty and creamy finish to soups and stews during the colder months. The supple texture offers substance to cakes, breads and other baked goods.

Amy Valdes Schwemm, the innovator behind Mano Y Metate, a freshly ground mole distributor, loves to include pumpkins and various winter squash during the fall season for her mole sauces. 

Mole Rojo (Photo By: Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News)
Mole Rojo (Photo By: Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News)

Schwemm’s connection to the art of mole grinding stems from her Mexican heritage and her mother and grandmother’s attempt to re-create the flavors of they grew up eating. 

After inheriting her great-grandmother’s metate, a stone used to crush grains and seeds, Schwemm became connected to the art of developing layers of flavors in her mole grounds. She grinds a mixture of chilies, spices, nuts, corn meal and herbs to develop the complexity of a mole.

“A nice, sweet winter squash is one of the best things to pair with the richness of a mole,” Schwemm said.

She loves to integrate steamed chunks of squash into the complex sauce, and has even creamed pumpkin and mole negro to make the filling for tamales.

Samantha Martinez, outreach coordinator at Native Seeds, has a deep connection to pumpkin pie as her birthday falls during the month of October.

“It has always been my birthday pie, ever since I was born,” she said.

Martinez uses a real pumpkin when baking her celebratory pie, “it is important to connect to the growing process and origin of the food we eat.”

The seed bank at Native Seeds houses over 500 varieties of ancient seeds. Each seed — circular, oval, small, big, thick or colorful — represents a distinct cultural origin indicative of the desert climate.

Ha:l seeds at Native Seed bank (Photo By: Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News Service)
Ha:l seeds at Native Seed bank (Photo By: Sarah Pelfini/Arizona Sonoran News Service)

She encourages people to grate their own nutmeg, scrape vanilla bean pods and grind whole cloves to experience the true flavors of ancient spices.

For those cold desert nights Schwemm has developed a creative take on the traditional horchata beverage. She grinds pumpkin seeds with water, honey and vanilla to form creamy, rich milk. As a finishing touch cinnamon sticks are steeped in the mixture.

Looking for something stronger? Add a few tablespoons of pumpkin puree, a sprinkle of clove, nutmeg, ginger and a splash of espresso. Then you’ve got yourself a full-flavored PSL.

The mixing of winter squash and spices represents the alliance of the old and new world and the nostalgic sentiment of the fall season that the pumpkin spice latte is trying to emulate.

“Maybe it started with the latte,” Reed said. “Maybe everyone has been secretly obsessed with pumpkin forever.”

Sarah Pelfini is a reporter for Arizona Sonoran News, a service from the school of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at spelfini@email.arizona.edu. 

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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