Walk through the Yankier parts of Notting Hill and Kensington at this time of year and the streets are an urban pumpkin patch with Jack-o’-lanterns and gourds on every doorstep. The more misshapen the better – and the more you’ll pay for them in Whole Foods. The Americans may like their stucco palaces immaculate, but they want their pumpkins warty.
It makes me smile, this pumpkin pomp and majesty. Do they know what is said about pumpkins? Have they heard the old Mother Goose rhyme: ‘Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater/ Had a wife and couldn’t keep her’? Put a pumpkin outside your door and you might as well say: infidelity here. The wife carrying on, perhaps, with her personal trainer.
Still, if you’re not embarrassed to be thought a pumpkin-cuckold they are striking against the white stucco: like jolly Frans Hals drinkers gathered at a bar. Their names are wonderful: the Aladdin pumpkin, the Amish pie, the Cinderella, the Full Moon, the Munchkin, the Hooligan (tiny orange and white freckly ones – quite unmenacing), the Jack-be-little, the Jack-be-Quick, the Snack Jack, the One Too Many, the Pic-A-Pie, the Red Warty Thing. Very alarming looking this last one: volcanic skin, a plague of boils.
They are delicious, of course: roasted with bay leaves for salads and soups and pies or stewed and spiced to make ‘pumpkin-butter’. In folklorist Mary Alicia Owen’s travel book Voodoo Tales (1893), she calls this a ‘villainous sweet compound of pumpkin stewed with watermelon-juice and known to all as “punkin-butter”’.
The Americans are the great hymners of the pumpkin. In Irving Washington’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, scarecrow-lank schoolteacher Ichabod Crane rides through a field of yellow-bellied pumpkins and day-dreams of pies and other ‘sugared suppositions’.
One can overdo the sugar. Autumn sees a collective delirium about the arrival in coffee shops of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. This horrible confection has its own Twitter feed and 114,000 sugar-high followers. Starbucks describes it as flavoured with ‘notes’ of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.
The ingredients for their Pumpkin Spice Sauce are: sugar, condensed, skimmed milk, pumpkin puree (‘contains 2% or less of fruit and vegetable juice for colour’), natural flavours, annatto, salt, and potassium sorbate. You can have it with Pumpkin Spice Topping: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, sulfiting agents. The true taste of autumn. At 380 calories and 50g of sugar, it is not merely villainous, but positively diabolical.
Can we stop this hooliganism? Can we stop taking photographs of our Starbucks takeaway cups – #metime #cozy #loveofmylife – with the caption ‘Enjoy it while it lasts’, as if the Pumpkin Spice Latte were something fleeting, evanescent, as precious as dew on a mists-and-mellow-milkiness morning?
The American market research firm Slice Intelligence has produced a graph of seasonal fluctuation in demand for novelty drinks. We see the Pumpkin Spice Latte peak and then, just as sales begin to fall after Halloween, the Gingerbread Latte comes steaming up, reaching peak sales on December 2. I don’t understand it, this mania. The pumpkin tastes of fabric conditioner, the gingerbread of bath salts.
Eat a pumpkin, carve a pumpkin, roll-up to a party in a horse-drawn pumpkin carriage. But please say no to the abominable Pumpkin Spice Latte.