This year, building on a decade’s worth of word-of-mouth buzz (specifically in the past few years on social media), Starbucks has received an inordinate amount of attention and press all due to one “limited time only” beverage: the Pumpkin Spice Latte. Or, as it’s known online and on chalkboards in the shop, “PSL”
Food trend pundits (yes, there are such things) have compared the fall’s hottest hot drink’s popularity to that of the McRib. Making something available annually — but only for a short period of time — apparently inspires a Pavlovian response from consumers.
McRibs are Frankenstein-ian junk food (there are, ironically, no “ribs” in the sandwich whatsoever). By contrast, if you like pumpkin pie and you like coffee, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is a welcome, evocative sign of the approaching fall, a seasonal seasoning that conjures warm feelings about cooler temperatures and family Thanksgiving gatherings. It’s the hot beverage equivalent of a content sigh.
Starbucks found the perfect product to pull a “seasonal only” marketing ploy, basing it on a flavor that Americans have been long trained to anticipate, then savor during a short window of time. Pumpkin pie, with its mix of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, is like the American heritage version of the McRib.
Food products have long played off of pumpkin pie’s cyclical popularity, but a stroll down your neighborhood grocery store’s aisle today reveals way more than usual. The unusual superstar flavor status of Starbucks’ PSL had at least something to do with the rise of pumpkin pie-flavored offshoots, many of which also sport “limited edition” designations.
On a recent weekend, I hit up a few local supermarkets to load up on pumpkin edibles and binge. (I found it amusing that most of the products specify the flavor is pumpkin “spice” or “pie,” lest someone mistakenly think the food tastes like the actual guts of a real pumpkin, which would be nasty.) By happy coincidence, I drove past a Frisch’s fast food restaurant sign that announced, “Pumpkin pie is back!” At one of the big-chain grocers, I had my first PSL thanks to an in-store Starbucks. Back at home, I sampled my finds by the light of a soy pumpkin pie-scented candle I just happened to have bought for my kitchen about a month ago.
Pumpkin pie flavor is more versatile than one might expect. It’s kind of hard to screw up. On the dessert side of things, I have nothing but praise for United Dairy Farmers’ Homemade brand Pumpkin Pie ice cream (pumpkin pie and whipped cream flavoring with pie crust chunks), Pepperidge Farm’s Pumpkin Cheesecake cookies (soft, chewy, rich and pretty much perfect) and Pillsbury’s similar bake-at-home Pumpkin Cookies with cream cheese-flavored chips.
Pepperidge Farm also has a Pumpkin Spice Swirl bread that’s similar to cinnamon-raisin bread. Well-suited for breakfast toast, I smeared a toasted slice with Philadelphia’s Pumpkin Spice cream cheese. It was shockingly good.
The cream cheese retains its inherent flavor and balances perfectly with the sweet, spiced pumpkin taste. That same balance is at work in Yoplait Light’s Pumpkin Pie yogurt — there’s the yogurt tang, but it’s cut with just the right amount of pumpkin, basically creating an all-new flavor.
Just when it appeared impossible to make a bad pumpkin-flavored food product, I hit the only major dud in my search. Last year, Target exclusively sold Candy Corn Oreos and people lost their shit over them. So much so that I gave up my quest for them after visiting four stores that were sold out due to the novelty and limitedness of the cookies (despite candy corn being a horrible flavor in its natural state). The Oreos are plentiful this year. And not bad, because the flavor is creamy and not really candy corny.
I found this year’s exclusive fall Target item — Pumpkin Spice Chocolate M&M’s — instantly. And like the Candy Corn Oreos, they hardly resemble what the packaging says. They taste like regular M&M’s with one grain of pepper placed in each. The chocolate overwhelms everything.
That’s another benefit of slapping a “Limited Edition” tag on a product. If there’s backlash, a company can play it off as a lark, a silly aside. Like last year, when Pringles issued “dessert chips,” including a Pumpkin Pie Spice chip. I missed them, but online reviews say they still had that Pringles salt overload (and were available at Big Lots, the food product equivalent of “straight to video”). They’re nowhere to be found this year.
Even though Pringles may have jumped the proverbial shark with its pumpkin crisps, Mr. Pringle can shake it off as a frivolous, attention-grabbing tangent. After all, it was only available for a limited time.
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