Google trends will tell you that the flavor is as popular as ever. But I was convinced that its time had come and gone. So I set out to prove that the flavor’s heyday was over — by forcing myself to eat every pumpkin spice-flavored item I came across.
When I was growing up, the major thing I knew about my Grandpa was that he loved pigs. Not so much pigs the actual animals, but pig paraphernalia. I would sit in his kitchen, surrounded by pig fridge magnets, pig notepads, pig dish towels, pig salt-and-pepper shakers. Ceramic pigs held the sugar and flour, and a heavy metal pig served as a doorstop. Every item that could have a pig on it did have a pig on it. I remember eating corn on the cob once while holding my food with pig corn-on-the-cob holders.
All throughout the year, whenever we happened across an item with a pig on it, I’d say to my mother “we should get this for Grandpa Wyman.”* And usually, we did. And come his birthday, or Christmastime, we’d gather at his house and watch him open tchotchke after tchotchke. I remember thinking that it must be such a joy to have so many everyday items become themed after your favorite thing. Whenever he went to floss, he would have a plastic pig there, dispensing it. While reading, he could hold his page open with a small, heavy pig, and then when he was done, he could hold his place with a bookmark festooned with more pigs. Everywhere you look, I thought, is filled with something you love.
*That’s really what we called him, by the way, not a pseudonym used for this piece. I'm still not sure how he landed so formal a nickname when he was anything but. There was no one else we called "Grandpa."
Many years later, and with my grandfather long gone, I have come to wonder whether he really loved pigs as much as he always acted like he did. Was it a true, lifelong devotion, or merely a mild affection, willed forward by the power of all his friends and family deluging him with a steadily increasing stream of pig knick-knacks? Did he become a Pig Man by choice, or just allow it to happen because he loved the fact that so many things we saw in our daily lives made us think of him?
Perhaps he was just the real-life version of this woman.
It took me a while to realize it, but I have become my grandfather. Each year, all through the fall and in steadily increasing volume, I have things sent to me from all corners of the globe. In the same way that I once saw tiny pig figurines and thought of my grandfather, people now see these things and think immediately of me.
I have become an accidental collector of pumpkin spice memes.
It's my own fault, I know. In the early days, I waged war against the pumpkin spicification of things. I despised the desperation, the way each one of these products seemed to shout, "hey, me too!" as I passed.
My Instagram account was full of disturbing, half-baked attempts I had found of companies eager to jump aboard the train.
It seems impossible now, but the truth was that I was alone on this one. Most people welcomed our new spice overlords. I was battered online by those who loved pumpkin spice lattes and took my constant anti-spice stance as an affront.* Most other people simply failed to notice the spice's encroachment, like a swarm of eyeless Niemöllers .
*to be clear, since this has been often misconstrued: I have no beef with the Pumpkin Spice Latte, a delicious seasonal beverage. My battle was always in the way that the flavor had expanded well past the borders of the corner coffee shop and into every other aspect of my life.
But then pumpkin spice didn't go away. Each fall, the flavor reasserted itself in the public consciousness, and each year, more people revolted against it. Snarky posts were scripted., memes generated, and I ended up tagged in all of them.
Because I'd been there, man. I'd seen it. I'd been on the front lines. And when people saw pumpkin spice, they thought of me.
But this year, every time I was sent a meme, it just turned out to be something from last year that the person hadn't seen yet. There was no new item in the grocery store or at a restaurant for Twitter to freak out over.
I became convinced that the flavor was over.
But the online stats didn't back me up:
Supposedly, pumpkin spice is as prevalent as it ever was. But how much of this was actual interest in pumpkin spice as a flavor, and how much of this was simply recycled memes, poking their head out again as fall reappeared?
I developed a theory: Peak Pumpkin Spice was over - in fact, the trend was secretly on its way to completely disappearing. Yet there were still pumpkin spice items that crowded the end of every supermarket row. How to explain them?
I started running Google searches on my phone on every pumpkin spice product I found.* It turned out that most of these products were not new - this was usually the third or fourth year of their appearance. The only pumpkin spice product debuting this year I could find was Pumpkin Spice Cheerios, with the alarming tagline "it's fall in a box!" Popsugar, who has been on this beat for a while, reviewed 38 pumpkin spice-flavored items this year (as opposed to the 124 they rated last year), and I was able to recognize at least half a dozen as products that existed in previous years.
*admit it: if you weren't concerned before about this article, you are now.
So maybe pumpkin spice had come and gone, and while everyone had dipped a toe in its spiced waters, only products with some staying power - products people actually wanted - were still on the shelves. The gimmicks were gone. Only the real spice remained.
But how to prove my theory? I saw no course other than to put my money where my mouth was.
I would purchase every single pumpkin spice product that I saw, and I would consume all of it. If pumpkin spice the gimmick was truly gone, then only good, worthy products should remain, right?
There was only one way to find out. I got in my car and drove to the supermarket to begin my quest.