Basic Bitches, Collective Delusion, and The Long American History of Being Defensive About Pumpkins

Image by cwizner from Pixabay

This year Starbucks released the pumpkin spice latte on August 27, the earliest date yet and before Labor Day, another contender for the official marker of fall in America. It’s not cold anywhere on August 27 and no leaves are yet changing, but by some definitions, it was fall.

What is fall? The most common answer is that fall is when the weather changes from summer hot to winter cold — though this has never been true in large parts of this country and others, though it’s often not true even in the places you expect it to be, though it will likely prove even less true as climate change alters seasons around the world. (In Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, the unnaturally idyllic English village of Lower Tadfield always has the exact “right” weather for every season, sunshine every summer day and snow on Christmas, but then it’s also the home of the Antichrist.)

Fall in Los Angeles is not a fact of nature but a set of social gestures, a collective wish. I do my part by changing into a wardrobe of fall clothes that are no warmer than their summer counterparts but are in autumnal colors and textures: suede joggers, a wine-colored tank, a cropped, open-knit, sleeveless “sweater” only by the most generous definition of that word.

Of course there are seasons in Southern California, but they do not follow the patterns ascribed in American popular culture, patterns based loosely on New England but with the edges rounded off.

Growing up in Los Angeles, the lack of “real” seasons was extremely distressing to me. As a child I felt everywhere a pervasive sense of unreality and I didn’t know to look for it anywhere but outside myself. Every Halloween my family would visit a parking lot pumpkin patch that had never grown a thing, and though I loved Halloween (of course) I was nagged by the idea that it was all fake, a type of performance that stood in contrast to the genuine, unselfconscious traditions I imagined people enjoyed in other places. This rankled because I already felt my entire life was a sort of failed performance, an approximation of what real people did, and I didn’t need to be reminded of that when I was just trying to buy some pumpkins.

As a child, however, most of my angst was about the winter snow, not autumn leaves. Fall in the 1980s didn’t have the cultural cache it has today. This morning I went to Jo-Ann’s Fabrics to check out their Halloween collection and found the store had set aside retail space for both Halloween and General Fall. Fall is, in effect, its own holiday. The fall section featured a combination of cozy throw blankets, artificial maple leaves, and a shadowbox picture frame filled with acorns and etched with the phrase “Cuddle Season” in a loopy, slightly off-kilter font.

The rise of fall was concomitant with the era of the basic bitch (RIP 2008–2016). The word “basic” has a longer and more nuanced history in the black community, but near the end of the 2000s it took over as shorthand for a certain kind of middle-class woman with boring mainstream tastes, who unashamedly loved things like Dry Bar and pop-up selfie museums and infinity scarves. Basic bitches were mad for fall: the leaves, the boots, the pumpkin spice lattes.

The pumpkin spice latte (often abbreviated PSL) was invented by the Starbucks corporation in 2003 as a follow-up to their already popular seasonal winter holiday drinks, the peppermint mocha and the eggnog latte. The PSL outshone them all, going on to become Starbucks’s most popular seasonal beverage and inspiring thousands of other pumpkin spiced products, from cream cheese to dog biscuits (and then, parody pumpkin spice items like toothpaste and Spam, that were in on the joke but still available to purchase for real, non-parody dollars). The PSL was a major contributor in creating Fall the Holiday, an ingenious way to sell us things before the traditional retail holiday season begins in earnest.

Pedants like to point out that there is no actual pumpkin in PSLs, In fact, Starbucks began adding a small amount of real pumpkin puree to their lattes in 2015, a move the Institute of Food Technologists says had no bearing on the drink’s flavor or nutritional profile: “The amount of pumpkin puree added does very little other than appease those who wanted to see real pumpkin on the list of ingredients.”

Counter-pedants might point out that it’s called a pumpkin spice latte, not a pumpkin latte. Pumpkin spice tastes like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. Pumpkin doesn’t taste like much of anything at all.

In its pumpkin spice fact sheet, the IFT explains, “Commercial pumpkin spice latte ingredients focus on giving you a complete and pleasurable experience that is consistent every time and evocative of pumpkin pie and the holidays… The major and common ingredient in pumpkin spice lattes include: cinnamic aldehydes for cinnamon, eugenol for clove or allspice, terpenes such as sabinene for nutmeg, and zingiberene for ginger. They may also contain vanillin and cyclotene for the burnt butter or maple notes to round off the flavor.”

The glut of pumpkin spice items inspired a predictable backlash. The animosity against PSLs and the women who loved them was out of all proportion to the crime of liking an over-sweetened latte. Their real crime was not being cooler, smarter, more sophisticated, less satisfied. In 2014 hating PSLs was a viable personality, as it was once possible to construct an identity from loving bacon and then a short time later, from hating people who loved bacon.

The comparison with bacon is illustrative. Bacon was to basic men as pumpkin spice to basic women, but bacon is coded as hearty, traditional, and authentic. Pumpkin spice is commercial, cloying — fake. One of the criticisms leveled against basic women of all ages was that they were fake. Fake is what unites a 20-something’s heavily filtered Instagram presence with a middle-aged mom’s stage-managed holiday card. Fake can mean substitution (sabinene for nutmeg, parking lots for pumpkin patches) but also curation, the Christmas letter that doesn’t mention you just got laid off, the photo of a freshly baked pie with a pile of dirty dishes just out of frame.

Basic women, in turn, became even more aggressive in championing PSLs. They started wearing t-shirts with slogans like Pumpkin Spice Latte Bitch and If Loving Pumpkin Spice Makes Me A Basic Bitch I’ll Take It, and for a time it seemed that middle-class white women in $90 leggings had successfully positioned themselves as a sort of underdog.

Pilgrims were first introduced to pumpkins by the Native Americans who cultivated them, along with other New England staples like beans and corn. Pumpkins were one of the easiest things for the new arrivals to grow and so they became a staple food, if not a beloved one. Instead they were a substitute for all the European foods colonists missed from home. As anthropologist Krystal D’Costa explains in Scientific American, “because it was so readily available, when people had no apples for pies, barley for beer, or meat for dinner, they used pumpkins.”

In 1671, John Josselyn published New England’s Rarities, discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of that Country, that included a recipe for stewed pumpkin (spelled “pompion”) that was supposed to approximate baked apples, which were in far shorter supply:

But the Houfwives manner is to flice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and fo fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and flew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they fink, they fill again with frefh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is ftew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Difh, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with fome Spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and fo ferve it up to be eaten with Fifh or Flefh.

Pumpkins, then, were essentially a fake food, a substitute, a thing designed to taste a bit like the thing you were longing for. “Pumpkin” is not even a specific botanical designation, but a sort of colloquial catch-all term for whatever winter squash you want it to be.

In the 19th century, savory pumpkin dishes were largely supplanted by sweet ones like hollowed-out roasted pumpkin shells filled with milk and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice. These “pumpkin spices” were codified and bottled for the first time in the 1950s by the McCormick spice company.

In the colonial period, pumpkin was looked down upon by both Europeans and status-conscious Americans as a low-class, backwoods food of last resort. This in turn inspired colonists to uphold pumpkins as a sign of the American values of hard work, ingenuity, and simplicity at odds with the effete culinary trends of Europe. Being defensive about pumpkins is an American tradition.

When I was a child, fall began whenever It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was played on TV. In the years before we had a VCR, we had only one chance each year to see it. As with the pumpkin spice latte, the cartoon was available only for a limited time, creating a sense of luxuriating before scarcity which is also the primary feeling of fall. (Part of the appeal of the PSL is its limited-time availability; there are very few things these days we can’t have on demand, at least if we can afford them.)

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown first aired on CBS on October 27, 1966. less than a year after A Charlie Brown Christmas and Charlie Brown’s All-Stars!, a special about baseball set in the summer. The Christmas special had been a surprise success and the network ordered the same team (writer Charles Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson, and animator and director Bill Melendez) to create another seasonal special for Halloween.

In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus criticizes the other children for their superficial celebration of Christmas as embodied by their desire for “the biggest aluminum tree you can find…maybe painted pink” (a jab that killed the market for aluminum Christmas trees in America). The real meaning of Christmas can be found in the spindly, sagging real tree Charlie Brown buys instead, and in the Nativity story Linus recites from the Gospel of Luke.

It’s not surprising, then, that Linus appears in the follow-up special still seeking an authentic, sincere holiday experience. But where he’d found the true meaning of Christmas in a received and culturally sanctioned story, for Halloween he concocts his own. Linus chooses not a ghost, witch, or skeleton, but a pumpkin, the most benign and least scary symbol of the season, and the one most closely associated with the agricultural rhythms of the year and the holiday’s pagan past. An obvious send-up of Santa Claus, the Great Pumpkin is a giant floating pumpkin spirit that visits faithful children on Halloween night and gives them toys and candy. But while in A Charlie Brown Christmas, Santa and trees and toys and candy distract from the true, Christian message of the holiday, for Halloween, the Santa-like figure is the message.

(Schulz had ambivalent feelings about Santa Claus, a myth he thought led to the disappointment and exclusion of disadvantaged children. When a woman wrote to Schulz complaining that the Great Pumpkin was sacrilegious, he responded that he was ‘basically on [her] side, that the real sacrilege is Santa Claus, and that [he] had [been] trying to show this in the Great Pumpkin scripts.”)

Every year Linus skips trick or treating with friends and attending their Halloween party to sit alone in a cold, damp pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin, who never comes. Unlike Charlie Brown, who constantly tries to join the group and is forever excluded, Linus turns down their invitations and chooses to go it alone (although this year Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally chooses to join Linus because she has a crush on him, but storms off in a rage when she realizes the Great Pumpkin isn’t coming and furiously declares “tricks or treats comes only once a year and I missed it by sitting in a pumpkin patch with a blockhead!”) Even Charlie Brown, forever giving the football one more try, has the gall to ask Linus, “When are you going to stop believing in something that isn’t true?”

A Charlie Brown Christmas is strange and sad, but it ends happily: love and faith transform the lowly little tree, and Charlie Brown’s failure, into a source of celebration and community pride. By contrast, The Great Pumpkin has one of the bleakest endings in all of children’s entertainment. It’s impossible today to imagine a mainstream children’s movie where a lovable, quirky child has a crazy, stupid, impossible dream that is proven to be — crazy, stupid, and impossible.

“Well, another Halloween is come and gone,” Charlie Brown begins as he and Linus reconvene the following morning. Sally missed trick or treating, Charlie Brown got nothing but a head full of paint and a bag full of rocks, and Linus is planning to find an even more sincere pumpkin patch next year (I’d very much like to know what criteria he uses to judge a pumpkin patch’s sincerity).

A Charlie Brown Christmas ends with a chorus of children singing in harmony; at the end of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Linus’s best friend and fellow weirdo Charlie Brown tries to extend an olive branch and gets shouted down. “I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, too,” Charlie Brown says, but Linus will not concede his belief is stupid. All he lacks is a community of believers: after all, Santa would never come either if millions of parents didn’t conspire to make sure he does.

Like Santa and the Great Pumpkin, fall in Los Angeles exists only if we all believe in it. I hated that once, when I wanted to find the real, authentic, sincere fall, but I love it now. Fall is our group project, our shared delusion, something we create together. It will be 59 degrees in Los Angeles tonight: go put on a light sweater, do your part.

Writer for Catapult, Longreads, The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and so on. Owner of After-Party Taxidermy. Working on a book about Halloween.

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