A processed food flavor

That’s from the NYT on the 17th (on-line), Frank Bruni’s op-ed column “Will Pumpkin Spice Destroy Us All?”:

(#1) In the labyrinth of pumpkin spice

It’s invention run amok, marketing gone mad, the odoriferous emblem of commercialism without compunction or bounds. It’s the transformation of an illusion — there isn’t any spice called pumpkin, nor any pumpkin this spicy — into a reality.

Pumpkin on its own is bland. What to do, if you’re not fond of bland? Pumpkin pie can get some pizazz from spices — especially cinnamon and nutmeg, also used to flavor eggnog, for similar reasons.

Such spice mixtures have been around for centuries, but only in recent years has pumpkin (pie) spice achieved commercial superstardom. Leading to Bruni’s comic savaging above, and to a Kaamran Hafeez cartoon (yesterday’s daily cartoon for the New Yorker).

(#2) Top of the line, Pumpkin Spice

On this blog on 11/24/14, “Pumpkin spice days”:

What with Halloween and Thanksgiving, pumpkin spice is all the rage in my country [the US] — in lattes, ice cream, and so on, in addition to the traditional pumpkin pie (which actually has pumpkin in it, not just the spice).

Then, Kim Darnell reported sighting pumpkin mochi (there are recipes on the net), but not pumpkin spice mochi (it turns out that that’s available too, and has both pureed pumpkin and pumpkin spice in it). And then, one step on with Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Mochi Ice Cream (“softly seasoned with pumpkin pie spices”).

Background: pumpkin (pie) spice. From Wikipedia:

Pumpkin pie spice is an American spice mix commonly used as an ingredient in pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie spice (sometimes also referred to as pumpkin spice) is similar to the British and Commonwealth mixed spice. It is generally a blend of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and sometimes allspice. It can also be used as a seasoning in general cooking.

The compound pumpkin spice. There seems to be considerable confusion about what this compound ought to mean: people seem to think that it should refer to a specific spice; that it should refer to pumpkin as a type of spice, a species of the genus spice; or that it should refer to a spice made from or with pumpkins. But a relentlessly repeated theme on this blog is that a N + N compound can be interpreted in a great many ways, even if we restrict ourselves to productive patterns of interpretation. So it is here.

Looking ahead: the meaning of pumpkin spice as used culinarily these days is, in a paraphrase, ‘a seasoning (or spice mix) for use in pumpkin dishes’.

First issue: subsectivity and its complexities. Some would object to the compound pumpkin spice on the grounds that it’s not subsective: pumpkin spice is not a spice (a spice like ginger, nutmeg, allspice, etc.). Two responses: that non-subsective compounds (crudely, N1 + N2 compounds where the denotation of the compound is not within the denotation of N2), of a number of different types, are commonplace and unobjectionable (the topic has come up often on this blog); and that, actually, pumpkin spice is subsective. The noun spice in it is not the C(ount) noun of OED2’s spice definition 1.a. —

One or other of various strongly flavoured or aromatic substances of vegetable origin, obtained from tropical plants, commonly used as condiments or employment for other purposes on account of their fragrance and preservative qualities. [cites from OE on]

but the M(ass) noun of definition 2.a.:

Without article, as a substance or in collective sense. [cites from ME on]

More specifically, a M noun spice ‘seasoning, spice mix, spice blend’, as in lamb spice ‘seasoning (or spice mix) for lamb’:

(#3) From the ad copy: “Lamb Spice is especially suited for marinating grilled meat and roasts”

Second issue: species + genus compounds. Some object to pumpkin spice because pumpkin is not (a) spice. Where someone would get the idea that (some) compounds should be of the species + genus type is beyond me, especially since a fair number of people object to all compounds of this type on the grounds that they are redundant. I take up such compounds in a 2/23/17 posting about species + genus cases like

collie dog, pita bread, phyllo dough, spanakopita pie

(arguing that despite the fact that collies are dogs, pita is bread, phyllo is dough, and spanakopita is a (kind of) pie, these compounds have their uses in context).

Third issue: Source compounds vs. Use compounds. Some would object to the compound pumpkin spice because it’s not a Source compound: pumpkin spice isn’t made from or with pumpkin(s); there’s no pumpkin in it at all. In fact, it’s a Use compound (very crudely, it’s (a) spice for pumpkins), and both Source and Use compounds are widely attested, with many entertaining contrasts; from earlier postings on this blog:

Source mink oil vs. Use saddle oil; Source cucumber soap vs. Use saddle soap; Source lobster salad vs. Use fish sauce and lobster sauce

(All of these compounds are in fact potentially ambiguous between Source and Use, though only one interpretation has been conventionalized, usually for good reason. Nevertheless, mink oil could be (an) oil to use on minks (to make them slipperier) as well as (an) oil made from minks, and saddle oil could be (an) oil made from saddles as well as (an) oil to use on saddles (to preserve them and make them more pliable); lobster salad could be (a) salad to use for lobsters (by feeding it to them) as well as (a) salad made from lobster(s), and lobster sauce could be (a) sauce made from lobster(s) as well as (a) sauce to use on (cooked) lobsters.)

Back to Bruni on pumpkin spice. His rant continues:

Pumpkin spice historians trace its origins as a sensory superstar to Starbucks in 2003. If Howard Schultz runs for president, he’ll have to answer for this. The chain’s pumpkin spice latte debuted then and instantly took off — it would eventually establish its own Twitter account, with more than 100,000 followers — and then American entrepreneurs did what they do best: glommed onto a lucrative thing and beat it into the ground.

Before long there were pumpkin spice pancakes, pumpkin spice almonds, pumpkin spice marshmallows. There was pumpkin spice vodka. There was even pumpkin spice candy corn, a feat of fakery atop fakery that’s almost too much to digest. It’s the culinary equivalent of staring into the void.

Pumpkin spice speaks to our talent for lying, especially to ourselves and in particular about what we eat. Although pumpkin spice products wear sylvan, seasonal drag, evoking autumn leaves and the harvest, they’re as far from the earth as Sandra Bullock in all but the last minutes of “Gravity.”

“A processed food flavor” is how my former colleague Michael Moss described pumpkin spice in a New York Times exposé of sorts — about a “spice,” no less! — that made clear that there is often “little or no actual pumpkin in it.” Sometimes there are slight vestiges of genuine clove and vague traces of honest-to-goodness cinnamon. Frequently there are just chemical impostors.

Somehow we accept the association, foisted on us, of these counterfeit confections with a chill in the air, a Jack-o’-lantern on the stoop and a Butterball in the oven. Pumpkin spice exploits our suggestibility and relies on our conformity, pegging us as pliant lemmings. Along it comes and en masse we march over the cliff of epicurean and olfactory logic.

And yet. We have this nick-of-time knack for knowing when we’ve reached peak lunacy and poking wicked fun at ourselves. That’s our saving and self-effacing grace, and pumpkin spice points the way to it.

Mother Jones magazine recently published a roundup of pumpkin spice ridiculousness: pumpkin spice fettuccine, pumpkin spice pet shampoo, even pumpkin spice underarm deodorant.

The website Eater maintains an inventory of “foods that have no business being pumpkin spiced” but that nonetheless met that gastronomic damnation. It includes pumpkin spice bagels, pumpkin spice yogurt pretzels, pumpkin spice kale chips and pumpkin spice Kahlua.

“Saturday Night Live” lampooned the pumpkin spice obsession in a fake commercial that imagined a pumpkin spice “intimate care wash” from the makers of Summer’s Eve — Autumn’s Eve. It was raunchy, hilarious and a sign of light at the end of this perversely pungent tunnel.

I might not have chosen an idiom with a tunnel metaphor in it in this context, but then Bruni probably did that on purpose, as a bit of final outrage.

Let Bruni go working at the care wash. I’ll go out with some real American food:

(#4)  From Trader Joe’s (back on 11/4/16)

In an ideal marriage of Japanese and American traditions, coupled with a conventionally unconventional Trader Joe’s sensibility, Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Mochi Ice Cream made its way to our freezers for the first time in 2014.

… Mochi is a traditional Japanese food made from steamed and pounded sticky rice. It’s chewy and slightly sweet, and quite unlike anything else. In the early 1990’s, an enterprising Japanese-American entrepreneur wrapped mochi around ice cream, and a dessert sensation was born. For years, we’ve been the go-to market for Mochi Ice Cream from this original source – this Pumpkin Pie version, made by that same pioneering purveyor, comes with our name on it!

On the outside, a pumpkin-hued mochi “wrapper.” Inside, pumpkin ice cream, softly seasoned with pumpkin pie spices, and studded with chunks of graham cookie pieces. The sticky, chewy outside keeps the ice cream from melting (for a while – it will melt eventually if left out of the freezer, because, you know, it’s ice cream), and makes this treat easy to enjoy without a utensil. Or a bowl. It’s ice cream finger food! Pumpkin Pie Mochi Ice Cream is a seasonal specialty; if you’re a fan of mochi ice cream, grab a box before Pumpkin Season fades away.

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