It’s finally happened: Starbucks has brought back a “drink” that no one but Americans can understand. It’s half brown and half orange. You won’t want to put it to your lips unless it’s first covered with a generous amount of whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon on top. Every year, as the season approaches and leaves touch the ground, it takes over the screens of America’s most popular café chain. It should resemble pumpkin pie. This is where you get it: We’re talking about the pumpkin spice latte, the king of fall, at least according to the Starbucks marketing team, who promptly hired Ed Sheeran in a barista apron because, as we know, he’s going off. Autumn variations, and then comes the year when celebrities move to the other side of the counter. The same Starbucks that has been trying to reassure us about our climate concerns for a while now, always pushing back the launch date by a few days. While fall always comes later, pumpkin spice lattes always come earlier. The world is burning, but our consumerism must continue. In the case of PSL for twenty years when it was first introduced.
You don’t have to go to the States to understand that this time a certain line has been crossed. On August 24, Italy fell victim to erratic temperatures or tropical storms. Stories from the beach and Bali still topped Instagram feeds, and no one thought about pumpkins at all. As Jaya Saxena writes in Eater, the same can be said about Americans. At the end of August, there are very few places in the United States where you can feel the breath of autumn.
The dizzying rise of the season at Starbucks, which since 2018 has chosen August, while in the period from 2015 to 2017 it was September; to think that the previously designated month was October – after all, this seems to be dictated not only by revolutions, but also by some idea of autumn. An idea based on some of the characteristics of the season in the New England state, which is part of the geography from the east coast to the north, in Canada. And which give life to other unmissable flavors such as donuts, Oreo cookies, McDonald’s cereal or chips; and again: apple cider, maple, toasted marshmallows.
As the name “New England” suggests, New England is among the first colonies that European invaders took from the natives, who, in the name of the name, wanted to maintain ties with their countries of origin. It was explorer John Smith, acting on behalf of the British crown, who named the region New England in 1616. Four years later, the “founding fathers” of white America, the Pilgrim Fathers, landed in New England aboard the Mayflower, beginning the permanent and systematic conquest of the territory. In this way, the scents of New England fall recall a past that is historically defining of the modern United States, but problematic because of the effects that the arrival of Europeans had on the lives and culture of the natives. Carrying the banner of “old school” fall flavors to New England, PSL is, for good reason, classified as a “white girl drink.” How he writes Seattle Met from the city that gave birth to PSL: “How to make a pumpkin spice latte? Add yoga leggings, UGG boots, a hoodie, an iPhone 5 and a white girl in a mixer.”
Meme irony aside, this question is fundamental to understanding the perverse connection between a burning planet and early autumn at Starbucks. So how do you make a pumpkin spice latte? Theoretically, as the name suggests, with pumpkin puree, a vegetable very dear to the American identity. once again on colonial issues. Like the tomato, the pumpkin comes from the American continent, where the natives already used it as a pig because they didn’t throw anything away. They ate the pulp, and wove mats and beds from the fibers. When Europeans found themselves back in New England facing famine, the pumpkin served as the nineteenth-century potato, keeping everyone alive and more or less healthy.
Over the centuries, pumpkin production spread throughout the country and only increased, including because the population soon began to use it for recreational purposes. It was the Irish, for example, who introduced the habit of carving them at Halloween, as they were softer and more manageable than the tubers and roots they knew in their homeland. And today, it’s not uncommon to find families and groups enjoying their day in the middle of a pumpkin patch.
But here’s the funny thing: despite America’s intrinsic love for pumpkins, Starbucks only introduced an actual pumpkin to PSL in 2015. The New York Times explains how the drink was mixed between 2003 and 2015 with a video that means nothing. : PSL only had spices reminiscent of the pumpkin days—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, or, in some cases, artificial flavors to offset them—as the subtle flavor of pumpkin could not come through in compounds rich in fat or salt. With milk and whipped cream, the Pumpkin Spice Latte easily falls into this category.
At this point, the vaunted drink may begin to sound like fraud, as his compatriots would say, or mockery, as the rest of us would say. A little promotional flag – we’d all order something that we could only get at one time of year, wouldn’t we? – to eat as if nothing had happened, even if, or perhaps precisely because, the planet is burning. As Jason Fischer, assistant professor of psychological science at Johns Hopkins University, comments to Eater, “Perhaps the continued heat makes us imagine and desire the more temperate climate we associate with the taste of pumpkin spice, and this always happens at the beginning of the year.” Perhaps it’s for this reason that Starbucks, in addition to giving us PSL on August 24th, also decided to introduce two new limited edition fall flavors. Cunningly, though, both are Cold Brew versions, which are cold, flavored with ice: the Pumpkin Cream Iced Tea Latte and the Iced Apple Oatmeal Espresso Cocktail. The cold version of PSL, Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew, has been around for a long time. They throw a stone into the autumn, then notice that it is boiling and hide their hand.
For all these reasons, the pumpkin spice latte has earned the title of “basic” over its twenty-year career. Conformist, boring. Accessible to everyone: intellectual, not economic. And perhaps also because he sold 600 million glasses during his twenty-year career. No “Grinch Club”, then, for the PSL, to the detriment of the climatic inconsistencies that it clearly exposes before our eyes? No, not at all. Indeed, pumpkin spice (anything, not just lattes) has now become like Christmas: hate it or love it. Someone will dress up as a deer on Christmas Eve, someone will post boring memes about the official beginning of autumn, now that our favorite drink has reached us. The writer feels that PSL’s flavor is inconsistent, that it doesn’t even taste like spice, and that toffee would be more filling.
If you’re a notorious killer too, don’t worry. There are many Club members, including Anthony Bourdain, who wrote: “I wish the pumpkin spice frenzy would drown in its own blood. And fast”. Or Jimmy Kimmel, who described a New Jersey pizzeria’s new pumpkin spice flavor as “the worst thing we’ve seen in Congress this week” – referring to some of the US parliament’s twists and turns over health care reform. However, the opposing side also has valiant fighters. In the foreground we find her, Martha Stewart, angelically declaring, “People love pumpkin spice. You just need to find that blend that everyone likes, and then you’ll never be able to part with it again. (…) I really think he will stay with us.”
At the end of the day, all we can be sure of is this: both climate change and Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes will be with us for some time to come. And it would be nice to find a smarter way to interact with them. However, one thing to always remember is that you may also be sold PSL at a coffee shop, but at the end of the day, it is a fast food dessert like any other. A nice warm milkshake, a little spicy, and there’s nothing wrong with falling in love with a comfort milkshake. Provided, however, that we do not pretend that everything is in order behind the edge of the glass. Yes, it would be a drink to forget.