Food & Drink

Sunday Dinner: A new emblem of autumn

When did pumpkin replace a crisp apple as the flavor of fall?
When did pumpkin replace a crisp apple as the flavor of fall? MCT

A friend and I were in line at a corporate seller of coffee-like drinks. We usually shun chain coffee shops, but this one was a convenient meeting point in our busy schedules.

On the menu: pumpkin-flavored latte, pumpkin-flavored tea, pumpkin muffins and pumpkin scones.

“I hate pumpkin,” my friend said as she ordered a coffee-flavored coffee. I was surprised they still made those.

For a long time, all that her disdain for pumpkin meant was that she had to choose a different dessert at Thanksgiving. But now, pumpkin is raining down upon the world, an orange downpour that’s flavoring products that even I, one who likes pumpkin, consider unsuitable.

There’s frozen pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin-spice almonds, pumpkin M&Ms, pumpkin marshmallows, pumpkin Pop-Tarts, pumpkin Oreos, pumpkin doughnuts.

And that’s just a few of the edible things. There was a pumpkin-spice scented pet-odor eliminating candle at the veterinarian’s office. I sniffed it, and thought maybe I’d keep the pet odor.

My questions: When did pumpkin become The Official Flavor of Fall?

And whatever happened to apple?

The good old apple, which has had a long and storied run for generations as the emblem of autumn, has been tossed aside like a chewed core. Now that I think about it, the last time it had a moment in the public consciousness was the Appletini in the 1990s.

This fall, I say respect the apple.

In early America, planting an apple orchard marked the first steps toward settling down and forming a community, Michael Pollan writes in his book, “The Botany of Desire.”

Having a pumpkin patch meant you were capable of sticking a seed in the ground and waiting a few weeks for a bumpy orange squash. That you couldn’t even eat unless you cooked it.

There are thousands of different varieties of apples with delightfully quirky names like Limbertwig and Arkansas Black. Communities loved their special apples, and many have now come back to farmers markets.

People embrace the pumpkin varieties that simply grow the biggest, for entering in those giant-yet-inedible pumpkin contests. Seeing the refrigerator-sized pumpkins that win reminds me of those tacky TV shows about people with 100-pound body parts. It’s just not natural.

However, I have to admit that the lovely apple may be indirectly to blame for the outpouring of pumpkin flavors.

Early humans were drawn to the apple for its sweetness. Before the 19th century, before cane sugar became widely available, “... the sensation of sweetness in the lives of most people came chiefly from the flesh of fruit. And in America that usually meant the apple,” Pollan says in his book.

We all know that the craving for sugar has exploded since then. And pumpkin doesn’t have much flavor unless you add sugar and spices, which the spinoff products have by the barrel-load.

We also crave novelty. We are short-attention-span eaters.

“One thing pumpkin has going for it is it’s still deemed seasonal,” says Mary Chapman of Technomic, an Illinois firm that monitors trends in the food industry. “Sure, apples come in and out of season, but they’re available year-round and loved year-round. Pumpkin products are more limited-time things, a new product that won’t be around forever. If we could get Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte year round, it would lose its value.”

Also, it’s really the spice flavor that attracts people, Chapman says. Much has been written about how we love that cinnamon-spice baking aroma and flavor from Grandma’s kitchen (even if Grandma lived in a retirement community and dined out every night).

I could point out that Chapman bears the same last name as Johnny Appleseed and lives in the nation’s top pumpkin-producing state, but let’s go on.

“The pumpkin trend is not going away. It’s actually grown,” she says. “For the chains, the pumpkin muffins and pumpkin coffees come up earlier and earlier each year. Last year, a bagel chain actually had a countdown clock on its website to when its pumpkin products would appear. They want people to get excited about these products.”

Then she told me that there’s such a thing as pumpkin-spice flavored vodka.

I groaned unprofessionally into the phone.

“It sounds like we’re in the same demographic,” Chapman said, laughing. “We like our adult beverages to taste like adult beverages.”

And I’ll take my coffee brown, please, not orange.