With over 200 million iconic pumpkin-spiced drinks sold since its introduction in 2003, the Starbucks Coffee Company claims that this beverage is its “top-selling seasonal beverage of all time,” which customers say “signals the onset of the fall season.” Yet, as a self-confessed lover of autumn, I have somehow avoided the allure the “PSL.” Why, despite that fall has always been my favorite season, do I not like the Pumpkin Spice Latte?
I tried one last year. Before I did so, I read about just how un-natural the “PSL” is, with no real pumpkin, a variety of dubious chemicals, sugar that even those who are not diabetic should avoid. I read make-your-own recipes using natural, wholesome ingredients, too, but I felt I needed to at least try the most commercially successful variation on the same theme.
Dropping my jaw at the price of even just a tall Starbucks “PSL,” I ordered my very first, and most likely my last, Pumpkin Spice Latte. From the very first sip, well… I hated it. The taste was overly sweet, cloying, had some hint of a spiced flavor, and managed to taste slightly metallic.
I felt surprised, and a little bit sad. I enjoy many foods made from pumpkin. As a child growing up on the West Coast, I yearned for the glorious autumn views that I remembered from my even smaller childhood in New England. Each year in California, I’d wait eagerly for the sugar gum trees to turn red, orange, and yellow, usually not until well into October. I’m sure Starbucks would want me to believe that a PSL might just have made that waiting easier.
When I went to college, finding that memory of autumn played no small part in my decision to move “back East.” I wanted fall color, bountiful heaps of snow, daffodils that came up later than January, and if summers had to be hot and humid, I would take them too, if only to acquire the other three. I soon discovered pumpkin ice cream, a flavor that seemed to combine everything I loved about my new life. This was the mid-1990s, and I happily ate pumpkin ice cream in what I thought was my own private communion with the dominant flavor of the season. A few years later, Starbucks introduced their Pumpkin Spice Latte, and for several years, I avoided this new way to ingest the spirit of the season. What changed my mind and drove me to try my first sip of what promised to be pumpkin in a cup?
Ironically enough, I think the answer might lie in an autumn spent with not enough pumpkin. In the fall of 2012, my family spent a fall and winter living in Finland. By the time September arrived, cool and rainy, I started looking for pumpkins. The outdoor marketplaces remained surprisingly free of autumn squash, not to mention an equally noticeable lack of corn stalks, bales of hay, or bountiful displays of the harvest season.
It was late November by the time my desire to consume something made from pumpkin reached a turning point. Snow was already falling, and what few gourds I had seen were no longer available. I would need to find some canned pumpkin. We learned that a large grocery store sold American goods, including canned pumpkin. The CityMarket resembled a Finnish equivalent of a SuperTarget crossed with a Wegman’s, stocking a full range of grocery options as well as clothes, household goods, and other items. There, in the back of the store, I found the promised American foods section. Nestled between Wish Bone salad dressing and Blair’s Jalapeno Death Sauce, I finally found Libby’s canned pumpkin for a whopping 4.29 Euros per can. I bought two.
This purchase was a highly ironic act. Thanksgiving was just around the corner, and I wanted nothing more than pumpkin bread or pie for our small feast. At home, canned pumpkin could be purchased for as little as $0.50 per can, but half a world a way, this tried-and-true experience of fall cost at least $5.50, plus the environmental costs of shipping the cans goods to Europe.
The following fall, I tried my first Pumpkin Spice Latte, a decision that seems to have been the direct result of spending a fall separated from all things pumpkin. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I spent that fall back home seeking pumpkin everywhere I could, in festivals, breads, and beers: trying the Pumpkin Spice Latte seemed to be the next logical step.
Beyond my need to reconnect with the taste of the season, the overwhelming presence of the “PSL” and other pumpkin-flavored delicacies in October and November makes ironic sense in American culture. No matter where we are on the globe, most Americans live at an increasing distance from the actual production of our shared symbols of fall. Most of us probably do not see a pumpkin patch as we drive to work or take our kids to school. (I don’t). Most of us don’t can our own pumpkin puree, and yet, we have a nostalgic response to this season of changing colors, temperatures, and moods. It is as if we seek a connection to the natural world of which we are less and less a part, and Starbucks–with its imitators and followers—brilliantly capitalizes on this desire. Through drinking a “PSL,” anyone, wherever the beverage is served, can participate in a commercialized communion with the spirit of the autumn season.
I don’t mind that I hated the Pumpkin Spice Latte. If I want to feel the spirit of the season, I will seek out a crunchy leaf pile and bury myself in it. I’ll scoop out a pumpkin seeds and bake its seeds, before turning the flesh into our breads or pies. If I’m feeling really desperate, I’ll drop some of that pumpkin, plus a few spices, into my morning coffee. Maybe that’s a PSL I can love.