I have become convinced that Peak Pumpkin Spice is over. The era of creating a "Pumpkin Spice!" version of your product has come and gone. Only the pumpkin spice-flavored foods that people actually want remain - therefore, everything labeled "pumpkin spice" in the store must be able to stand up on its own feet as a product.
But the only way to prove that was to try everything pumpkin spice that still existed, and see if it merited existence. With that in mind, I drove to the grocery store to see what was left - and to buy all of it.
I have come up with three ground rules for my journey today:
- Any item labeled "Pumpkin Spice" must be purchased, no matter what it is.
- Anything that looks like it's trying to be pumpkin spice without actually calling itself pumpkin spice - "pumpkin flavored," "pumpkin and cinnamon," etc. - must also be purchased.
- Anything that seems just to be pumpkin product, minding its own business, ignoring current trends, can be ignored. Each of these products will be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis.
My shopping cart rattles through the doors on what is normally considered the "far" side of the grocery store, where medicines and beauty products are kept. I skip past several of these before realizing that I may be missing some prime pumpkin spice product.
Just the past week, while filming some repair work at a foster home, I washed my hands in the kitchen sink and discovered that the soap I was using had a familiar look to it.
It had disguised itself, but the intention was clear: this was a pumpkin spice hand soap.
I scrubbed my hands with it and sniffed. My hands smelled like pumpkin, yet the odor was still sharp and clean. I had assumed my hands would smell like I'd just spilled a latte on them, but the soap's scent was surprisingly charming.
Since that day, I have developed a Pumpkin Spice Flavoring Rating System.* Every product I discover will be graded not on a 1-10 scale, because such measurements are too individual. Instead, all pumpkin spice products are given one of three ratings: Actually Good, Worthy of Existing, or Banishment.
*patent still pending.
I doubled back and started over, weaving my way up and down each aisle. Fortunately, it appears that Big Pharma has avoided the trend, and there was no pumpkin spice-flavored Ex-Lax or anything similarly vile.
Instead, the first pumpkin-themed product I came across was this one:
1. Willow Lane Pumpkin & Cinnamon Candle.
In case the name wasn't clear enough, the photo of a pumpkin pie on the label made it extremely obvious. This was a pumpkin spice candle.
I took off the cap and sniffed warily. It lacked that sickly, false scent so many cheap candles have, fortunately - the predominant notes were cinnamon and wax, and the overall effect was not unpleasant.
Regardless, it was clearly a Category Two Pumpkin Spice Product. Into the cart it went.
2. H-E-B Pumpkin Ice Cream
Does someone have the phrase "pumpkin spice" trademarked somewhere? Because this product could not anymore clearly be pumpkin spice - the label lists the spices included in a pumpkin spice product! - yet it simply calls itself "pumpkin ice cream."
It sounds monstrously unappetizing, though perhaps it partners well with something - a hot cinnamon roll, maybe.
This one may end up sitting in my freezer for a while before I get the guts to try it. Still, into the cart it goes.
3. Little Debbie Pumpkin Spice Rolls
These oddities were placed at the end of the freezer section, just below the ice cream toppings. It seemed a bad place for them, unless the thought process was "well, while you're already making bad decisions..."
Most Little Debbie products are designed to look appealing on the outside of the box - think of how creamy a Fudge Round looks! - and it's only after taking a bit of one that you realize that it's made of about 40% preservatives in case you need to weather a nuclear holocaust.
These have some of that care worked into them - the pattern to the icing on the roll is a nice touch - but look like a stale and unappealing option even in pictures. And is it just me, or does Debbie's smile look a little forced?
4. Little Debbie Pumpkin Delights
This one here is a clear Category Three - there's nary a mention of spice anywhere, and if the great Pumpkin Spicing of the world had never happened, these products might have appeared on store shelves without anyone thinking twice about them.
Of course, I didn't come here to play games, I came in the name of Science.* If pumpkin spice-flavoring is hiding in this product, then the public has a right to know.
Also, they look kinda tasty. Into the cart they go.
*This may be the loosest definition of "science" ever recorded.
And now we come to the surprising early entries into Christmas creep - the coffee flavorings. They stands out sharply in comparison to the bright oranges of the fall decorations surrounding them.
I expect this to be the first of many Christmas products I find hidden throughout the store, but instead, these are the only items I find. Lactaid Eggnog, Almond Breeze Nog... do people who don't consume dairy miss Christmas more than other people?
There is no time for me to ponder such important questions, I have my own queries tonight. I leave this mystery for other enquiring minds and move one shelf lower.
5. International Delight Pumpkin Pie Spice Iced Coffee
I mistakenly assume that this item is some sort of creamer, but no, it turns out that it's iced coffee, already sweetened and creamed and served in a dairy container of some kind.
Are there non-pumpkin spice versions of this product? I've never seen it before. In fact, I didn't know International Delight made actual coffee, I thought they stuck with making horrendous creamer flavors that always make me feel ill.
Maybe I can bring this one into work. I drop it into the cart.
6. Entenmann's Little Bites Pumpkin Muffins
These are clearly a Category Three, but they have too much about them that screams "pumpkin spice" to ignore. Their placement at the end of the shelf, the large "Limited Edition" orange tag up top, the "Seasonal Favorites" flag on the side - these are trying to place themselves into the pumpkin spice game. I must know if they're for real.
I spend over ten minutes of hunting through the coffee aisle to confirm it: there are no pumpkin or pumpkin spice flavored coffees anywhere. Every other conceivable type of coffee that could exist exists here, but not pumpkin spice. Not even in the kaleidoscope of flavors that makes up the Keurig section.
Either Starbucks has a tighter hold on the coffee flavor than I imagined, or else my theory about pumpkin spice is proving right.
The Christmas flavors are already out, though.
7. Pepperidge Farm Pumpkin Cheesecake Cookies
Another Category Three. I consider this one for a long time before finally deciding that it gets a pass. Not everything is pumpkin spice just because it is pumpkin, and pumpkin cheesecake existed a long time before pumpkin spice ever came along.
8. Central Market Pumpkin Spice Cookies
Well, there's no guesswork here. In fact, I have to applaud Central Market's simplicity of thought. There are no descriptors, no adjectives of any kind. Nothing on the box has an exclamation point. I'm almost surprised the even included a picture, actually.
I spend a substantial amount of time in the tea section, but there is not a single flavor of tea with even a hint of pumpkin theme. I don't think I even spotted a "Harvest" flavor anywhere - usually a backdoor products use to put a pumpkin onto something not pumpkin-flavored. Instead, there's just... tea.
Pumpkin spice is dead. I am convinced.
9. H-E-B Pumpkin Harvest Soup
This one may not even be seasonal. After all, there must be some call for having pumpkin products throughout the year, right? Apple cider is a fall drink, but you can have the stuff anytime you please. Why not pumpkin soup? Plus, they'll stick the word "harvest" on anything when it comes to soup, it doesn't have to be a fall product.
Also, I'm struck by the ordering choice made in making "soup" be the top word. It makes it seem less like "Pumpkin Harvest Soup" and more "Soup is proud to present... Pumpkin Harvest!" I almost expect there to be a colon after "soup," like it's a damn Jack Reacher movie.
This soup must be investigated. It gets placed in the cart as well.
10. Così Com'è Pumpkin Cream
I don't even know what the hell this is. Do you put it on a cracker? Does it pair with cheese? Am I to rub it onto my face? I cannot possibly buy this product without some sort of "how to" manual. I had to Google the name so I could copy-and-paste the brand into this post, just so I could get the accents right. This is already too much work.
Most importantly: this product is imported from Italy, a sun-drenched land where I imagine the notion of pumpkin spice is ne'er considered. This seems more Europhile than Basic. It stays on the shelf.
We're not even halfway through the store, yet this post is already wobbling from length and pictures, like an out of control Buzzfeed listicle. We better divide this up into multiple parts.
Part 2 coming soon!