Pumpkin Spice

& other autumnal existential comforts

Solomon 001 holds a tense calm at 10:00 a.m., recently emptied in quiet preparation for the lecture to come. Although November has been full of sunny mornings and temperatures that barely qualify as sweater weather, the lecture hall is fixed in a cold, desolate winter. Off-yellow incandescent lights cast awkward shadows on the half-erased blackboard and cramped, vacated aisles. A few students sleep in the creaky seats or cave into their computer screens. I totter down the steps and take my chosen place in the second row with every intention of completing a lab report due later in the week. Pulling my laptop onto my lap, I stare momentarily at the various barely-touched documents and tasks flooding the desktopPinterest it is.

The familiar red-and-white dashboard fills with generated possibilities: recipes, images, and articles, all pleasantly photographed and labeled with quaint captions. With the emerging holiday season, the majority of the content relates to DIY decorations, gift ideas, and seasonal desserts. There are instructions on how to make snowflake ornaments, a promotion for 50% off a crockpot, a tip sheet for Black Friday shopping, a recipe for cranberry pecan pie, and so on. I sift through them absentmindedly, save an infographic on public speaking, a list of apps for busy college students, a recipe for homemade Larabars. I pause as my mouse hovers over a photo of pumpkin spice granola spilling from a mason jar.

I’d never been adamantly against pumpkin during autumn and its consuming presence in foods and doorsteps and daily life. Rather, I had just become bored with it. I’d eaten the one-note slice of pie, carried a chosen pumpkin out of a farmer’s market and cut my finger as I attempted to carve a jack o’ lantern. Year after year I watched local pumpkin patches saturate with excitement and county harvest festivals venerate the sunset-colored squash as if it were some new, profound crop. In small grocery stores already overflowing with pumpkin minutia I overheard the countless conversations about pumpkin soups, pumpkin bread, or pumpkin beer, and nodded half-encouragingly as neighbors and family friends ecstatically described some new concoction they’d seen on the Food Network. For a small Midwestern town, pumpkin was simply an inescapable aspect of fall, a reminder that people had nothing better to do then obsess over the odd plant. And when the flavor inevitably fell into the holiday potluck, I found my palate always in preference of other tastes. For me, it just didn’t live up to the hype.

When I started working as a barista during high school, the arrival of the jugs of thick pumpkin syrup signified an overly saccharine beginning to the hectic busy period of the year—a beginning that can only be described as “basic.” The popularized classification of pumpkin lovers, despite my resistance to its problematic nature (Is it just another excuse to shame people for liking things?), quickly sunk into my vernacular as my ambivalence towards the flavor became annoyance. I quietly judged the customers that crowded the store to cling to its nostalgic comfort, downing beverage after beverage for the sake of the season. With my coworkers, I lamented how the syrup complicated the cleaning processes and cluttered the countertops. If I never tasted the flavor again, I was sure I’d be all the better for it.

So why is granola suddenly so appealing? I picture snacking on it casually with my family in our house back in Minnesota, watching some sitcom and flipping through newspapers or magazines while our backyard fills with fallen leaves. The image softens, full of an unfamiliar warmth and yearning that startles me from the lull of browsing. For a moment I’m lost in it. With a tentative click I save the recipe with a sense of impulsive confusion, before I close the site and stare again at all my unfinished assignments.

Like most college students, I’d left my home and all its rote activities with the stubborn belief that I’d never return. I had been suffocated, trapped in the cornfield-laden center of Minnesota, and I was sure that the rest of the world had so much more to offer. When I moved to college, I felt certain that Brown University would introduce me to impactful, busy people that were too occupied changing their communities or advancing in their fields to care about silly trivialities like pumpkin spice.

Although campus still contains plenty of pumpkin (you can’t ever escape Starbucks’s pumpkin spice lattes), it has in a way squashed my time for this indulgence. In Brown’s hyper-competitive and studious environment, any minor celebration is a threat to my grades, and partaking in seasonal traditions has become a luxury I can’t afford. How can I justify, for example, watching Halloween movies or going apple picking when I have a midterm on Monday? Why would I make a pumpkin pie when I have a lab report that could be done? While I definitely procrastinate regularly, somehow setting aside that time always seems too costly, especially when I know I never cared for those activities in the past.

Nonetheless, there is a hollowness to functioning without them, each week passing undistinguished and swallowed by a million tasks. Even though in the moment I am doing exactly what I hoped to be doing—living a life too busy for Midwest middle class nonessentials—I feel myself proceeding through each day and immediately forgetting it. I miss the insignificant significance given to harvests and end-of-the-year celebrations, the comfort of days void of the sense of something to be done. I miss arbitrary small town traditions and the forced cheer of the pumpkin spice and foods. Moreover, I don’t want to sit through another cold, serious lecture. I want to talk about nothing in the grocery store, care about things that matter only superficially, and live beyond academia. I want to spend time with loved ones and experience autumn turn into winter. I want to embrace my home and cook some pumpkin spice granola.