The History and the Cultural Significance of the Pumpkin Spice Latte

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photo (20) In the late 20th century, possibly due in part to a television series entitled "Friends," entire establishments built around the sale of coffee began popping up on street corners, gradually creating a sub-culture of laid-back java-sippers who either didn't have a day job or didn't care to keep it. From sea to shining sea, or at least in New York, people came in droves to taste the sweet nectar of specialty coffee.

Since the 1970's, a man had been running a small coffee store in Seattle, ushering people out of the torrential downpour that occurs in Seattle 23 hours a day (probably) and placing a cup of warm coffee in each of their hands. One day Sir William Starbuck awoke from an inspirational dream and decided to take his shop to the masses.*

From there it was only a matter of time until Starbucks began creeping into cities, then suburbs, and yes, even college towns in Alabama. Armed with the motto, "Everyone gets a Starbucks," Sir William strode forward into the unknown, passing out green straws and educating the American people on what a latte is and how to be a coffee snob along the way. And occasionally explaining that "Starbucks" were not some kind of rewards program for NASA  where you can redeem them for space memorabilia. Through the coming years, he stood by the weird mermaid logo and respectable working conditions for employees, and the Starbucks empire was born.

Some of those facts may be "debatable" in some circles, but the point is, in 2013 there is a Starbucks on every corner.  And with Starbucks come fancy drinks. And with fancy drinks come fancy limited edition seasonal drinks. And with fancy limited edition seasonal drinks comes the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte was invented in the year of our Lord 2005 (probably*) and consists of espresso, frothed milk and about a cup and a half of flavored syrup. This syrup is no ordinary syrup, though. In it can be found traces of nutmeg and cinnamon, and even pumpkin, most likely. (Most pumpkin things do not actually taste like pumpkin itself, because pumpkin is like a squash. And that would be gross.)

Proponents of the drink insist it tastes like "joy" and "fall," two distinctly non-gustatory descriptors, and are often beside themselves with anticipation when the drink makes its debut each September. There is no doubting the PSL's popularity, however peculiar.

The real question is why? Why is this latte more popular than the other lattes? Why does pumpkin spice elicit more tweets than the salted caramel (also seasonal)? We have some theories.

First, as a people, we are obsessed with Fall. We would say this is a recent phenomenon, but as early as Anne of Green Gables, people have been talking about how much they love October. And she was from Canada, so we can be sure it isn't just a Southern thing where we are so crazy from the heat that we are desperately seeking cooler temperatures and anything that reminds us of them. Perhaps it is because Fall is such a fleeting season--we only get a month, at best here in middle Tennessee--and we must cling to it for dear life.

However, it cannot be denied that Pinterest has increased our love for this season exponentially. Well, Pinterest and fashionable scarves. Okay, Pinterest, fashionable scarves, and boots.

Pinterest is obsessed with Fall and, more pertinent to the topic at hand, pumpkins. Perhaps only Elf on the Shelf ideas surpass the ideas people have for pumpkins. There are pumpkin handprints, pumpkin iron-ons, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin ravioli recipes, pumpkins made of paper, pumpkins made of foil, pumpkins made of pumpkins, ways to carve your pumpkin, ways to paint your pumpkin, ways to up-cycle your pumpkin into a hat (I mean, maybe), how to fit your kid into a pumpkin for a photoshoot, --where were we? Oh, yes. Pinterest and pumpkins. They're BFFs, y'all.

Pumpkins were not always as popular as in recent years. This is evidenced by the fact that we have had (rumors of) a pumpkin shortage the last two years. Further evidence is that while our parents did put us in pumpkin costumes for Halloween, carve jack-o-lanterns with us, and make pumpkin pie, that was pretty much the entirety of pumpkin-related shenanigans going on each fall. We didn't put pumpkin in cookies or brownies or punch or coffee. It was a simpler time.

We propose that it is the longing of these simpler times that fuel our obsession for pumpkin now. The millennials are a nostalgic generation. We love everything from our childhood, and pumpkins remind us of that. While we didn't have all the variations shoved down our throats available today, we only have fond memories of pumpkins. We remember going to the pumpkin patch and picking out the perfect one to carve. We remember oh-so-carefully wielding the knife under our parents' supervision to cut eyes, nose, and crooked mouth. We remember pumpkins on steps as we walked door to door dressed like cats or dogs (without that being code for "a slut"), collecting candy from neighbors and strangers without worrying (too much) about razor blades or poison. We remember pumpkin pies with family at Thanksgiving. Maybe pumpkins remind us of innocence and community.

Starbucks has capitalized on this by not only providing a pumpkin beverage, but also a marketing campaign and a hashtag (#PSL)--the modern arm of community. They only do it once a year in limited quantities (JUST LIKE FALL), so the local coffee shop becomes the neighbors' doorsteps. We go, getting our treats. We take pictures of our loot and put them on instagram for everyone to see, like, comment, and think, "Oh, I love Fall, too!"

The trick is we're paying $4 a cup for it. (Get it? Like Trick-or-Treat? Classic.)

We all love being a part of a community. Identifying with things and movements that we can then use to represent who we are to the world. Solidarity. Commonality. These communities are formed around common interests, and man, is the PSL ever a common interest. Sure, there's also the whole being-a-white-female-aged-18-to-35 thing, but mostly the PSLs.

It's more than a drink. It's a community. It's a movement. Whether you like it or not.

How many PSLs have you had this season (or PSC--Pumpkin Spice Chai, for those like Elizabeth)? Be honest.

*What? We can't employ a fact-checker on these measly salaries, okay?

Posted on September 25, 2013 and filed under coffee.