Pumpkin spice challenge: Why commercial products are inferior to pumpkin pie spice.

I've long said that the autumnal staple-flavor, pumpkin spice, curiously has nothing to do with pumpkin, and is instead composed almost entirely of the flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg. So I was heartened to see J. Bryan Lowder make this point in a recent Slate article, Pumpkin spice challenge: Why commercial products are inferior to pumpkin pie spice.

First, let me thank Lowder for expressing my view so well:

In an irony that seems to symbolize the state of commercial food production, products labeled “pumpkin spice” almost never contain any pumpkin. That’s because pumpkin, alone, is gross. Only in, for example, a pie with sugar and spices does it become palatable, and yet, for a host of complex historical reasons, the gourd remains the flavor’s primary symbol instead of, say, the more-accurate-by-weight cinnamon stick. Cinnamon is the main ingredient in the mixture of ground spices commonly sold with the label “pumpkin pie spice,” which also contains ginger, nutmeg, and sometimes cloves and/or allspice.
But it was interesting to see that Lowder's weeklong experiment of consuming nothing but pumpkin spice did lead to one positive culinary conclusion--namely that the ubiquitous pumpkin spice actually should be used more with savory items. "Some dishes underlined its nutty fragrance while others benefited from its warmth," he notes. "On the roasted pork loin, it took on notes of cumin and coriander, while on the sandwich it was almost peppery. Everywhere I used it—even a sprinkle in salad dressing—it blended with savory flavors to add a certain heft and sophistication while never making me think a PSL had spilled into my bowl."

Given the way pumpkin spice has come to dominate sweet fare this time of year, it's curious that it hasn't made this leap to the savory side of the palate. It would be interesting to study how these flavor memes evolve and spread. Why, for instance, did chipotle pepper come on so strong over the last decade? Why did no one put avocados on sandwiches and burgers before, say, 2010? Do these things arise and spread naturally or are there chemical conglomerates out there actively plotting the next taste buds to pound into submission?


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