If you grew up during the mid-60s or after and you weren't raised by the Amish, there's a good chance you watched It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown every fall until you deemed yourself too cool. If you missed it, the holiday cartoon opens with Linus writing a letter to The Great Pumpkin, a holiday spirit not unlike an orange, squash-shaped Santa Claus. He goes so far as to ask for gifts. Lots of them.
The cartoon ends with Linus sleeping amongst the papery stalks and leaves of a pumpkin patch, shivering and clinging to his trademark baby-blue blanket. The Great Pumpkin never comes.
Or does it?
Every fall we're revisited by a mythical invasion of flavoring agents that lace food products with a warm and heady sweetness. It started innocently enough with pumpkin pie. Next pumpkin was added to cakes, cookies and other baked goods, where it still made sense even if it lost some edge. By the time pumpkin made its way into the latte it had decidedly lost its cool, but it marched on anyway -- into cupcakes, processed snack cakes, candies, baking mixes and some of the shittiest beers Americans have ever brewed.
But while pumpkin pie is a wonderful dessert that actually contains real pumpkin pulp (even if most of it is spooned from a can), these new pumpkin products often contain no pumpkin at all. Instead they rely on the spices that are commonly used in pumpkin pie recipes. Cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, combined with chemicals that mimic creamy and toasty flavors, snuggle the pleasure receptors in your brain up to a warm and toasty fire and make you think "pumpkin." And it still gets weirder.
Now the Times has published a video that points out that even the spices in many of these pumpkin spice products are fake, a loose collection of spice oils or their synthetic equivalents, blended by people called flavorists.
So if we're not spending our money on pumpkin, what are we actually buying? According to narrator Michael Moss, it's perceived exclusivity. Later this November, as we're tossing out Thanksgiving leftovers, the pumpkin spice invasion will come to a close (hi peppermint!) and we'll have to wait 10 months to get that next fake-pumpkin fix. Pumpkin spice is the everyman's lactone-laced affordable luxury product. And because we know it will return year after year, we're comforted by it.
So maybe Linus wasn't that far off. The Great Pumpkin never came, but the Great Pumpkin Spice has become as reliable as the holiday season it's tailored to. Linus was just a little early. And he seems to have been wrong about the presents.