Are you down with the PSL?
By Denise Sakaki
Are you down with the PSL? If you’re not familiar with the lingo (apparently, I was not), PSL is short for Pumpkin Spice Latte. If you haven’t walked into a Starbucks recently – I know, they’re quite rare – you may not have seen the new coffee cup sleeves with the “PSL 10” logo, celebrating a full decade of pumpkin devotion. Enter Jeremy Piven’s character from the ultimate high school reunion movie, Grosse Point Blank, shrieking, “Ten Years?!” to alum/professional killer, John Cusack. Has it truly been a decade since this ubiquitous fall flavor seduced our palates? I admit, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, not just by the sheer longevity of this seasonal specialty drink, but the fact I’m literally swimming in pumpkin spice products now. And I think I need a life raft.
200 million Starbucks PSL drinks later, pumpkin spice has become a phenomena. Much like the fictional Melange of the Frank Herbert Dune novels, the spice has flowed, taking over scones and other baked goods, the non-dairy creamer flavor from Coffee-Mate that gives your humble java a dazzling fall makeover, and to wind down at the end of the day, you can get tipsy guzzling pumpkin spice beer from any number of macro and micro-breweries. You can even stave off the pumpkin spice hangover by noshing on an entire canister of Pringles pumpkin pie spice potato chips. Yes, those exist, and according to Amazon, there’s 5 cans left, if you’re weird like me and buy snacks off the internet. And don’t forget the products you can’t eat – there are sparkly body lotions and specialty soaps, and you can make your whole house smell like a giant wedge of fresh-baked pumpkin pie through a rogue’s gallery of room sprays, candles and plug-in fresheners. It’s like passive marketing to the senses, so that you crave another pumpkin spice latte, and begin relentless cycle anew.
Ironically, very few pumpkins, if any, were harmed in the making of these products. There is no actual pumpkin in any of those products mentioned, much less a Starbucks PSL, not even some distilled essence of gourd. It’s all about the mix of spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clove – spices not uncommon to other comforts like apple pie, but come on, Pumpkin Spice-Anything is what puts you in a mindset of swirling leaves and warm, wool coats. So I shouldn’t be surprised to see more products flood the market like Pinnacle Vodka’s pumpkin pie-flavored-booze, or M&M’s special pumpkin spice flavor that melts-in-your-mouth-not-in-your-hand. No actual pumpkin in any of those products, but hey… swirling leaves… warm, wooly coats!
I was going to avoid the PSL altogether this year, but it’s a little hard to avoid Starbucks in Seattle. I found myself wanting a plain latte, but one of my favorite baristas peer-pressured me, and I got my first Pumpkin Spice Latte of the season. I took a tentative sip, thinking I would feel completely overwhelmed and vanquished by the Cult of Pumpkin Spice. But no. It was rich, pleasantly spiced, and immediately brought to mind the sound of brittle, dry leaves at my feet and the crispness of the fall air. Damn you, Starbucks. I got a pastry from my favorite little bakery, had my PSL to keep my hands warm, and I took a moment to appreciate the leaves changing color. The season was in danger of losing a bit of its luster as autumn felt like it was getting wrapped up and sold on shelves, but it was reassuring to see fall right where it should be – outside, and without a price tag. With a dash of cinnamon.
Denise Sakaki is a freelance food writer and photographer who is always searching for the connections between food and personal experience. She is the creator of the food blog Wasabi Prime and contributor to Serious Eats, 425 Magazine and Drink Me Magazine.