It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.
So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the 19th century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.
Rural nostalgia, however, is nothing new in the U.S. In fact, it goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who, of all the Founding Fathers, was surly the Founding Father-est. Jefferson’s vision of America centered on the “Agrarian Yeoman” ideal: he believed that small, independent yeomen farmers represented the highest level of American self-sufficient virtue and work ethic, and should therefore settle the vast American landscape. Jefferson considered an agrarian society to be morally superior to the cities, which he viewed as rife with unnatural economic and moral corruption in the form of financial speculation and industrial development that threatened his ideal of agrarian democracy.
Jefferson’s Agrarian ideal has never really left American popular culture, and pumpkins have helped keep it alive and kicking. Historian Cindy Ott, author of the fantastic book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, traces the pumpkin’s modern popularity back to the 1800s, when the Market Revolution spurred the growth of industry that drew Americans away from the countryside into the larger cities. As the growing market economy caught more and more people in its web, Americans embraced the pumpkin as a symbol of pre-modern, idealized, rustic family life. Thus, pumpkins became big, orange emblems of the agrarian ideal that Jefferson so cherished and to which Americans ascribed the simple comforts of home, family, and small-town life.
So powerful a symbol was the pumpkin that even after it ceased to be a valuable commercial crop, it still connected Americans to a primitive, pastoral age untainted by the cold mechanics of the modern world. As Ott observes:
As many Americans felt they were losing connections to the natural world, an authentic way of life, and their cultural roots, the orange field pumpkin, in particular, helped them rebuild those connections…What the orange field pumpkin lost in practical usage and economic value, it gained in symbolic power. Americans gave it a vibrant life in stories and holiday rituals that helped them talk about the meaning of nature within a rapidly developing urban and industrial society.
Since the transition from countryside to urban centers hasn’t really stopped since the 19th century, Americans today are scarfing down pumpkin flavored-stuff for largely the same nostalgic reasons. By eating and drinking pumpkin flavors, Ott notes, “We’re celebrating the nostalgia for this old-fashioned, rural way of life, that no one ever really wanted to stay on, but everyone’s always been romantic about.” The explosion in popularity of pumpkin flavored everything has left some people worrying about the rise of a “pumpkin spice empire” with possible designs for Genghis Khan-style world conquest, while others are downright angry, pleading for more rational heads to “stop the pumpkin-izing.”
The growth of the “pumpkin spice empire” might lead some to conclude that the humble orange squash has been commercialized and factory-farmed to the point of it being yet another weapon in the industrialized agricultural onslaught that nearly wiped out American family farms. But never fear, for, as Ott notes, the commercialization of the pumpkin via the buying and selling of rural nostalgia has actually been a boon to small American farms. People’s idea about the pumpkin, she writes:
[H]ave revitalized the very thing it has long symbolized – the small family farm. The natural peculiarites of the crop, its meanings, and market conditions have all encouraged its production by small-scale growers for local markets at the turn of the twenty-first century.
The pumpkin’s increasing economic value arose out of the deep meanings Americans invested in it, and its increased commodification helped rejuvinate small-scale farmers and small rural towns rather than undermine them.*
It seems, then, that however annoying and shameless, the commercial onslaught that is pumpkin flavored-stuff will likely continue — even though most of that stuff likely contains no actual pumpkin. So far, this commodification has been beneficial to the great orange squash and the people who grow it. Moreover, by continuing to worship the pumpkin via attending the sacred church of American capitalist consumption, you are keeping the age-old Jeffersonian tradition of the Agrarian ideal alive and well. Even if you’re a suburban office dweller, by eating pumpkin flavored-stuff, you nonetheless gain a primal connection to Jefferson’s mythic, virtuous, independent yeomen — and that should make you downright sick with glorious American-ness.
So this fall, go on and enjoy your pumpkin flavored coffees, chocolates, pies, and, especially, beers. You can be safe in the knowledge that you are helping to stimulate the American economy, especially those fabled “small businesses,” via the cultural consumption of a storied American icon.
* Cindy Ott, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 7.