Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017 | 2 a.m.
There are villains out there of infinitely greater consequence than the one I’m about to describe, and the news of late teems with them. But surely we still have the levity, and the taste buds, to look past the White House and beyond Hollywood and tremble before a lesser boogeyman.
Boogeything, really, because I’m talking about a flavor and not a figure, a scent instead of a gent. Lock the refrigerator, bolt the cupboards and barricade the pantry. Pumpkin spice is here.
And there. And everywhere. This is fall, after all, and that’s when we’re awash in pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin spice cereal, pumpkin spice cookies, pumpkin spice doughnuts. They used to stage their invasion on the cusp of Halloween. Now they barely wait for September to take over the world.
One day we’re still catching the faint perfume of Coppertone on summer-bronzed arms; the next we’re trapped, aromatically speaking, inside an enormous orange gourd. It happens that quickly, that insidiously: a zombie apocalypse, if the zombies wore nutmeg cologne. And it really must stop.
But it won’t. It can’t. I finally realize that, because at last I see that pumpkin spice is more than a curiosity, bigger than a phenomenon. Pumpkin spice is America.
It’s invention run amok, marketing gone mad, the odoriferous emblem of commercialism without compunction or bounds. It’s the transformation of an illusion — there isn’t any spice called pumpkin, nor any pumpkin this spicy — into a reality.
Oh, hell, let’s just go there: It’s Donald Trump. I don’t mean the color of his hair, though pumpkin spice is as good a description of it as any. I mean that pumpkin spice became special by shamelessly insisting that it was and ruthlessly creeping into every corner of the culture that was docile, dippy or lazy enough to accommodate it.
I mean that it began as a novelty: Ooh, pumpkin spice, what’s that? Our curiosity became our attention, our attention became our submission, and suddenly pumpkin spice owned us. It was barring refugees, hectoring impressionable Boy Scouts, undermining Obamacare and telling us it had a higher IQ than Rex Tillerson. For fun it golfed, even with Rand Paul.
Pumpkin spice historians trace its origins as a sensory superstar to Starbucks in 2003. If Howard Schultz runs for president, he’ll have to answer for this. The chain’s pumpkin spice latte debuted then and instantly took off — it would eventually establish its own Twitter account, with more than 100,000 followers — and then American entrepreneurs did what they do best: glommed onto a lucrative thing and beat it into the ground.
Before long there were pumpkin spice pancakes, pumpkin spice almonds, pumpkin spice marshmallows. There was pumpkin spice vodka. There was even pumpkin spice candy corn, a feat of fakery atop fakery that’s almost too much to digest. It’s the culinary equivalent of staring into the void.
Pumpkin spice speaks to our talent for lying, especially to ourselves and in particular about what we eat. Although pumpkin spice products wear sylvan, seasonal drag, evoking autumn leaves and the harvest, they’re as far from the earth as Sandra Bullock in all but the last minutes of “Gravity.”
“A processed food flavor” is how my former colleague Michael Moss described pumpkin spice in a New York Times exposé of sorts — about a “spice,” no less! — that made clear that there is often “little or no actual pumpkin in it.” Sometimes there are slight vestiges of genuine clove and vague traces of honest-to-goodness cinnamon. Frequently there are just chemical impostors.
Somehow we accept the association, foisted on us, of these counterfeit confections with a chill in the air, a jack-o’-lantern on the stoop and a Butterball in the oven. Pumpkin spice exploits our suggestibility and relies on our conformity, pegging us as pliant lemmings. Along it comes and en masse we march over the cliff of epicurean and olfactory logic.
And yet. We have this nick-of-time knack for knowing when we’ve reached peak lunacy and poking wicked fun at ourselves. That’s our saving and self-effacing grace, and pumpkin spice points the way to it.
Mother Jones magazine recently published a roundup of pumpkin spice ridiculousness: pumpkin spice fettuccine, pumpkin spice pet shampoo, even pumpkin spice underarm deodorant.
The website Eater maintains an inventory of “foods that have no business being pumpkin spiced” but that nonetheless met that gastronomic damnation. It includes pumpkin spice bagels, pumpkin spice yogurt pretzels, pumpkin spice kale chips and pumpkin spice Kahlua.
“Saturday Night Live” lampooned the pumpkin spice obsession in a fake commercial that imagined a pumpkin spice “intimate care wash” from the makers of Summer’s Eve — Autumn’s Eve. It was raunchy, hilarious and a sign of light at the end of this perversely pungent tunnel.
We can take only so much pumpkin spice, and its days at Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s are numbered. Maybe its days at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., too.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.