Pie was the least interesting pumpkin offering at the Black Squirrel last Friday. The Sixth Annual Smashing Pumpkin Beer Fest served up pumpkin sloppy joes, pumpkin burgers, pumpkin mac and cheese, and pumpkin ice cream floats. On tap were 15 pumpkin drafts, including a cider, stout, Belgian tripel, barrel-aged brew, and various ales.
“Nothing goes better with pumpkin than more pumpkin,” says owner Amy Bowman.
That seems to be the food scene’s mantra this year. Across the District, hardly a restaurant does not have at least one pumpkin dish on the menu—whether it’s pumpkin pasta, pumpkin tacos, or pumpkin cocktails. (And though Y&H has mostly abstained, hardly a food blog hasn’t compiled yet another tired list of the top 11 pumpkin dishes or, in the case of BuzzFeed, “32 Ingenious Ways to Eat Pumpkin All Day Long.”) And then there’s the hyped-up Starbucks pumpkin spice latte, affectionately known by its fans simply as “PSL” (a trademark filed by the company last year). Never mind that it doesn’t even contain real pumpkin: It’s the coffee chain’s top-selling seasonal drink of all time, with more than 200 million cups sold since its introduction in 2003. Pumpkin spice flavor now infiltrates products across grocery store shelves—from Oreos to Kraft marshmallows to Wrigley’s Extra gum. When somebody posted a fake advertisement for pumpkin spice condoms, everyone believed it. Why wouldn’t they?
Pumpkin pandamonium is still a relatively new phenomenon. When the Black Squirrel started its annual event six years ago, the small ticketed affair attracted about 50 people in the upstairs lounge to sample six or seven pumpkin ales. There was food to go with beers, but not pumpkin mac and cheese and sloppy joes. “Six years ago was sort of when the pumpkin-beer craze was just at its infancy,” Bowman says. “It was more sort of like a blip. Everything wasn’t pumpkin.” But about three years ago, “it just went totally bonkers,” she says. More pumpkin beers became available, and people started freaking out about pumpkin foods and beers. Now, the pumpkin fest packs a full house. “I just see the trend building year after year after year,” Bowman says. “More and more people are totally into it. I mean, it’s eclipsing Halloween basically.”
The same kind of thing is playing out on a national level: In 2013, sales of pumpkin-flavored products reached $308 million, a 14 percent jump from the previous year, according to market research firm Nielsen. “The popularity of pumpkin in the grocery aisles has no doubt piggybacked on the rise of pumpkin outside of the grocery stores,” stated another Nielsen report from 2013, which cited the success of Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. The firm found that breakfast foods and beverages—including baked goods and coffee—accounted for the greatest growth in pumpkin products. Meanwhile, pumpkin beer topped $22 million in sales in 2013. No other ingredient inspires quite the same mainstream mania as pumpkin. Chefs and people who shop at farmers markets may go gaga over, say, ramps. But you’ll never see a ramp spice latte. Ramps are not a $308 million industry.
“I feel like this year, the whole pumpkin thing is coming to a head,” says Kori Hill Wallace, who works with her husband to produce ’Chups, a line of fruit ketchups in flavors like mango, peach, and blueberry. And, this fall, after many requests, also a pumpkin ketchup. “How could you not?” she says.
But let’s be real: Pumpkin isn’t actually that great. “Pumpkin doesn’t really taste like anything,” Bowman says. “It’s not the best gourd. But it’s the most fun, apparently.”
The flavor that most people associate with pumpkin isn’t even really pumpkin. It’s “pumpkin spice”—a combination of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg (or artificial variants).
People who actually make food for a living, as opposed to people who sell mass quantities of pumpkin-spiced things, say it isn’t even the best squash. “Butternut squash is the best squash,” says the Red Hen chef and co-owner Mike Friedman. Not only is pumpkin less sweet and flavorful, but it can be harder and more expensive to cook with. It has a very large cavity with seeds, and you don’t usually get as much meat out of it as you do with other squash.
But that’s not stopping Friedman from putting a pumpkin dish on his menu anyway. He’s currently serving an extruded pasta in the shape of little pumpkins called zucca (which translates to “pumpkin” in Italian), topped with a pumpkin sauce, green onion, wild mushrooms, sage, parmesan, and toasted almonds. The pumpkin sauce, though, will be swapped for other types of squash when they’re available from local farmers; Friedman only takes this whole pumpkin thing so far. “I’m not like a super pumped-up, can’t-wait-for-pumpkin kind of guy,” he says. “I love all the heirloom squashes from the farm.”
Beer nerds also often look down upon pumpkin ale, despite how popular it’s become among general consumers. “Personally, I’m not a huge fan of pumpkin beers,” Pizzeria Paradiso Bar Manager Sam Fitz says. “I don’t love that everybody ignores their taste buds for an entire month and just forces themselves to drink pumpkin beer over and over again.” At Bluejacket, Beer Director Greg Engert had access to pumpkins from the restaurant group’s affiliated nonprofit farm, Arcadia, but he wondered whether making a pumpkin beer would even be worth it. It’s the spices, not the pumpkin, that gives pumpkin beer its flavor, so Engert thought it would almost be a waste of a local ingredient. He ultimately didn’t make a pumpkin beer, though that was mostly because he already had a full brewing schedule.
But the obsession with pumpkin isn’t really about pumpkin, whether fresh or spice-derived, is it? It’s about nostalgia for knit sweaters, cozy fires, and changing leaves; it’s anticipation for Halloween and Thanksgiving. And for chefs, it’s a symbol of all the rustic fall ingredients they can play with when the summer’s corn and tomatoes are gone. “Maybe we’re really getting back to this excitement of the seasonal cooking again,” Friedman says of pumpkin’s popularity. “It’s not just one menu for all year-round.”
Besides seasonality, of course, pumpkin can be good for business. When it’s on the menu, pumpkin beer sells two to three times better than anything else at the Black Squirrel, says Bowman. At Granville Moore’s, mussels in a pumpkin broth were the best seller for October last year, says owner and chef Teddy Folkman. His chef de cuisine Jeremy Kermisch came up with the recipe, which incorporates pumpkin, butternut squash, roasted corn, white wine, and bourbon. It was such a huge hit that as soon as Oct. 1 hit this year, it automatically went back on the menu.
As a result of all that green that comes with the orange, pumpkin season is growing. No, the actual growing season isn’t getting any longer. But just as surely as you’ll spot Santa in stores soon (if he isn’t there already), companies and restaurants are using canned pumpkin or its associated flavorings to push pumpkin products and dishes earlier and earlier. Starbucks released its pumpkin spice latte early this year—on Aug. 25. Some pumpkin beers are now released as early as July (and, as Y&H observed in an earlier column, they’re often sold out before it’s even seasonally appropriate to drink them). The Black Squirrel hosted an event this June with a few pumpkin beers and pumpkin burgers. “People were really excited,” Bowman says. “I guess they were having pumpkin withdrawal, since it was the summer.” She anticipates that it’s not long before some brewery creates a year-round pumpkin ale.
That perpetual pumpkin product, though, just wouldn’t have the same appeal. Part of the reason people who are inclined to like pumpkin season get so worked up is the cultural and marketing machine that creates anticipation for the staple, followed by fear of missing out before it’s gone. But even for diehards, there’s only so much pumpkin or faux-pumpkin anyone can take before getting sick of the stuff.
“Pumpkin mania I think is OK,” says Granville Moore’s Folkman, “because it goes away, too.”
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Photo of the Black Squirrel's mac and cheese by Darrow Montgomery