Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Pumpkin Spice, Whiteness, and Taste

As an immigrant to the United States, at first I first outright refused to tick the "white" box in demographic surveys.  For my entire life I had been selection a box that said pakeha or Caucasian.  Outside of a paint chart, white was just a word that preceded words like supremacist or power.  I eventually adjusted and got used to the fact that in American, I am considered white.  I look white, I act more-or-less white.  I drink pumpkin spice lattes.

The association between pumpkin spice (lattes and otherwise) and whiteness, especially white females is the but of many jokes, but none of them in a very serious vein (as far as I can tell, after 15 years my grasp on American pop culture can still be a bit hit and miss). However they are tinged with a little judgement that PSL enthusiasm is faddish and somewhat vapid.

This article by Lisa Jordan Powell & Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt ("The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins") explores the more general connection between the pumpkins and race. I had never thought of this as an ethnological phenomenon linking decorative gourds, pumpkin chucking contests, pumpkin beer etc. The authors also comment on the exaggerated seasonality of pumpkin use in the US, in contrast to other countries (I topic I have eluded to before).

The cultural meaning associated with the use of pumpkin in processed foods and as recreation does seem to be associated with whiteness via its association with certain pre-existing groups, like Martha Stewart style crafters and weird-beer hipsters.  But I think the authors could have explored further than the sporadic use of the pumpkin to symbolize white privilege.

Unlike many symbols of white elites and their mainstream counterparts, pumpkin spice is not innately valuable or the subject of widespread yearning.  Almost anyone can consume some form of pumpkin spice should they want to.  As such it is quite distinct from luxury products that are usually held up, mocked, or re-appropriated as symbols of a whiter kind of elite (e.g. tailored suits, luxury cars, perfume, fur coats).

As such pumpkin spice and its associated products have become a shorthand for that aspect of WASPy culture that is mindless and unsophisticated, and should not be coveted by a cultured person.  A PSL is not widely considered "good" coffee, and other pumkinized brands are widely rejected by connoisseurs of the underlying product. Even after ten years pumpkin spice is treated in the media largely as a somewhat gauche fad that will end, or move on to fresher fad flavors, some time soon.

Outside of the subculture of enthusiastic fans, pumpkin spice love seems to be considered the result of privilege (largely white) and banality... or bad taste. Which is where the symbolism and the reality part company.  Because the reason the PSL took off so quickly and spread so widely is quite simply because it tastes good.  Pumpkin, sugar and warm spices has the rounded and nostalgic quality found on other evergreen flavors like key lime, ketchup, grilled cheese, or miso soup.

Pumpkin spice flavor appeals to people in a way that is "basic" in the old sense of the word--meaning it is easy to shrug of its reputation as "basic" (unsophisticed/foolish/obnoxious) in the new parlance. And as any of us in or past middle age have figured out by now, it is much more important to be happy than to be "cool" (or whatever the kids these days are calling it).  So while the racial symbolism of pumpkins and their products is an interesting and evolving subject, it is not something that should be putting anyone off their latte, their catapult, their carved gourd, or whatever pun'kin pastime gives them pleasure. Or at least that's my take on it.

No comments:

Post a Comment