To an ex-pat Australian living in Canada, there are many puzzling aspects of what one might call Grand Unified North American Culture. Why are there so many TV channels yet all that’s on is repeats of The Big Bang Theory? Why don’t they like roundabouts? Why hasn't internet banking caught on yet—and who still uses cheques? (The good people of Canada and the United States, that’s who). How come you can buy guns in what is essentially Big W, in both fine nations? Why is the US still persisting with the imperial standard? Why are Canadians obsessed with Australia’s deadly wildlife when its own wildlife includes bears, wolves, wolverines, as well as bad-tempered elk, cranky bison and murderous moose?
But most puzzling of all is the pumpkin spice phenomenon.
Every year, sometime after the June solstice, the coffee shops of North America bring in their seasonal menus. What this means is pumpkin, and lots of it.
Now, North Americans have a strange relationship with the pumpkin. They eat it only as a pie. And a sweet pie, to boot. To any Australian who grew up with roast pumpkin as part of their Sunday roast, as well as pumpkin scones and pumpkin soup, the idea of pumpkin primarily as a dessert is a trifle strange. Of course pumpkin scones are a sweet treat, but at least most Australian people use actual pumpkin in their pumpkin scones. Here in the north, they use pumpkin pie filling from a can.
(They also like to use pumpkins as decoration, as that masterwork “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, M-----f---ers” so eloquently explains).
I can get behind carving pumpkins for Halloween, I can tentatively accept pumpkin pie, I can even understand why you’d buy the filling in a can, what with the general painfulness of chopping up a large squash. But where the line needs to be drawn is the pumpkin spice latte.
The first time I wandered innocently into my local Starbucks—Canadian law dictates a person can never be more than 10km from a Starbucks or a Tim Hortons at any time, unless that person is officially in “the backcountry” and has all the necessary permits and licenses and an avalanche beacon—and saw the sign for the pumpkin spice latte, I was confused.
Now, Canadian coffee is pretty bad at the best of times, especially from Starbucks and even more especially from Tim Hortons. The love Canadians have for Tim Hortons is so peculiar, so misplaced, and so perverse, that I am forced to conclude that the store laces its stale donuts and cigarette-butt-flavoured coffee beans with some sort of highly addictive substance. People queue for this shit. Actual lines out the door.
But a latte that tastes like pumpkin? Cigarette butt and pumpkin-flavoured coffee?
Incredulous, I turned to the infallible Google, and discovered the pumpkin spice latte is, in fact not flavoured with pureed pumpkin or pumpkin pie filling from a can, but the spices typically used to flavour pumpkin pie. My intensive research tells me the spice blend usually includes a lot of cinnamon and smaller quantities of cloves, allspice, ginger, nutmeg and possibly mace.
In short a pumpkin spice latte is a latte with cinnamon sprinkled on it. Of course, this being an invention of the United States of America, it probably also contains high fructose corn syrup and the tears of true patriots.
It’s hard to get too worked up about a cinnamon latte, even if you’re buying it from a place that uses the contents of old ashtrays instead of coffee beans, so let’s instead focus on the deceptive marketing of the name, and the fact that artificial scarcity is created by calling this beverage “seasonal”. What, is cinnamon powder only available between August-November?
And what’s to stop you from making your own pumpkin pie spice blend at home and putting it in your coffee? In, say, March? NOTHING. And so, I urge the consumers of North American caffeinated beverages to buy a decent coffee making apparatus, a milk frother, and some FRESH GODDAMNED BEANS. With all this you can sprinkle spice blend on your coffees for a mere cents instead of $4.95 plus taxes. Do it for yourself, and do it for freedom. Especially if you’re in the United States. If you are in socialist Canada, do it for the Mounties! (I don’t know what that means but it sounds good).
KATE HAYCOCK, CALGARY
The author wishes to note she has not actually sampled a pumpkin spice latte as she prefers to buy her coffee from a coffee shop where they use freshly roasted and ground arabica coffee beans sourced from fairtrade growers, and where the baristas know that coffee should taste nice and not like dirt.