Published Oct. 7, 2009
Nick bites into fall’s favorite flavor
The menu is the new Farmer’s Almanac. When crates of clementines appear, it’s time to bundle up. When you’re dodging yet another volley of asparagus spears, the sweaters can head for storage. Used to be, sticking a wet finger in the air would tell you how the winds were changing. Now you just have to stick out your tongue.
No flavor marks a season more than pumpkin, a squash that has squeezed its way into everything from cheesecake to cocktails. But does the taste of a filthy, rigid warty fruit enhance these products? It was time to gorge.
My first stop was Starbucks for a pumpkin-spice latte, an endeavor that was doomed from the start. I drink coffee like a masochist, with each sip delivering a delicious jolt of pain and the chance to dirty-talk my java under my breath. Lattes are usually tepid, and while the pumpkin flavor in this one started sweet, there was an oddly salty finish. As one coworker remarked, “That would stay with me all day, in a bad way.”
If I was going to regret drinking something, it might as well get me drunk. So I moved to beer, perhaps the most popular and heterogeneous sector of pumpkin-flavored products. My friends Chris and SooAe—who’ve embraced adulthood more openly than the rest of my maturity-challenged pals—had thrown a dinner party. I didn’t attend, but the following morning I leapt out of my racecar bed to help them finish the booze.
We began with seven different beers, an array of glasses and one snooty observation: There’s no pumpkin in the bouquet. Chris decided Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout has the aroma of coffee milk. Huffing the Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, SooAe decreed, “This smells like Crabtree & Evelyn.”
The reasoning is the seasoning, and when picking a pumpkin beer, what you should look for isn’t accuracy in flavor, but ingredients that best match your preference in pumpkin pie. If you like brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg, try Dogfish Head Punkin Ale. If you abhor flavor of any kind, try Blue Moon’s Harvest Moon. But congrats to Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead, this year’s winner of the Best Seasonal Vehicle for Inebriation Award.
Testing my pie theory, I went to Toscanini’s, where, due to pumpkin’s popularity, the flavor had sold out. “I’m obsessed with it,” said Alicia, behind the counter. “Fall and pumpkin go hand-in-hand.”
“But what we really want is pumpkin pie, right?”
She answered with an immediate, almost conspiratorial “yes.”
The girl at Lyndell’s Bakery was equally obsessed with their equally sold-out pumpkin cupcakes. “Last night, people were buying them four at time,” she explained, as her enthusiasm for their quality quickly clouded her acumen for salesmanship. “Because they’re like the pumpkin muffins at Dunkin’ Donuts. Have you had those? Oh my God, I live for them.”
On a return visit, I found that while the flavor could easily be carrot cake, Lyndell’s version does win points for presentation, with thick orange frosting, striations of green icing and a candy stem. Much like with the beer, inaccuracy in flavor didn’t hinder my guzzling.
In the end, the most faithful, and tasty, presentation was pumpkin soup from Da Vinci’s, which was the one thing I ingested that contained discernible pumpkin. Roasted and seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, the soup also included pancetta, allowing you to not only dust off the stock phrase “everything’s better with bacon,” but raise it to previously unfathomable levels of foodie pomposity.
Pumpkin is a tricky fruit. You can’t just pick one up and take a bite. But then again, you don’t see rhubarb lattes around, and unlike pumpkin, that ingredient is never going to win a pie popularity contest. Maybe it’s the color, maybe it’s that they make great lanterns. But I suspect we love pumpkins because they’re an excellent medium for cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Just stock up the cupboard, and you’ll have the flavors of fall year-round.