NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — To Form A More Perfect Pumpkin

Russ spotted a row of pumpkin pies at the Village Inn the other day. He stopped dead in his tracks, and breathed one wistful outburst: “Yummm.”

So now, it’s officially autumn. A few weeks earlier, he’d never have wasted a second glance for a brown ugly duckling pushed toward the back of the pie case, skulking behind the more glamorous choices — strawberry, peach, Key lime, coconut cream, lemon meringue….

But somehow, as sure as the world keeps turning, the first hint of autumn inspires a longing for perhaps the least celebrated but most temporarily beloved pie in the cabinet.

Pumpkin pie — or “punkin,” as we knew it growing up — is the Rodney Dangerfield of desserts. For most of the year, it garners no respect, none at all. And worse: Even now, in these few brief months when it finally gets its turn to shine, pumpkin — or, more properly, pumpkin spice — has turned into fall’s version of a Christmas fruitcake joke.

Among the trendier, latte-sipping cohorts, the overexposure of pumpkin spice has turned it into a punch line. The bullying started when Starbucks debuted its seasonal hit, the Pumpkin Spice Latte, about 10 years ago. Suddenly, the flavor was turning up everywhere — no longer just in Mom’s dog-eared recipes for pumpkin bars and pumpkin bread, but in neighborhoods where no self-respecting orange orb had formerly been known to venture.

Pumpkin-flavored everything is popping up all over. I’ve only read of many of its permutations, rather than spotted them on our local shelves, but believe me: This is the kind of thing that, once described, makes a real impression. Pumpkin Pop-Tarts and Pringles Potato Chips. Pumpkin vodka and beer. Pumpkin bagels and breakfast cereals. Orange-stuffed Oreos. Pumpkin chewing gum, M&Ms and even Peeps. Scented candles that smell sort of like pie … and pumpkin air fresheners.

The funny thing — I mused last night, as I happily slurped my single Pumpkin Pie Blizzard of the season — is that the real fruit that bears the name (and yes, it’s really a fruit) doesn’t deliver much flavor of its own.

Pumpkin flesh is notoriously watery and fibrous. Only the distinctive pop of spices sets it apart from the Valley of the Bland.

We who are known to pie it up already understand the fresh pumpkin’s inadequacy in a half-subconscious way. That’s how we justify never sacrificing potential jack-o’-lanterns in pursuit of our desserts. Why take a chance at cannibalizing the Great Pumpkin when it doesn’t even taste all that good?

Instead, we invariably turn to one of Libby’s best-selling products, its canned puree. The label proudly proclaims it “100% pure pumpkin,” grown in good ol’ Illinois — a special variety the cannery itself developed.

Funny thing, though. The Libby’s label shows a lovely piece of pumpkin pie … but not the globular orange gourd of that name. And there’s a reason for that.

Libby’s “pumpkin” — and every competing brand on the grocer’s shelf — is squash.

Yes, squash … the unprepossessing dull-colored but delicious gourdish spheres and ovoids. Fill them with sliced apples, brown sugar and cinnamon, then bake to dinner table perfection. But don’t fashion a face on your butternut and light a candle inside. You’d get more centerpiece bang from carving broccoli.

This deception does not come as a shock to botanists. They’ve always known that pumpkin is merely a species of squash, closely related to its dull-shelled but golden-fleshed cousins. It’s distinguished only by its glowing color, stiffer vine, edible seeds and sub-par contents.

That’s right. In the tasteless department, the pumpkin bears a strong resemblance to its notorious shirttail relation, the zucchini. There’s a hidden resemblance there. Both are valued mostly because, if grated fine and stirred into well-spiced batters, no one even realizes what’s hidden inside.

According to Department of Agriculture statistics, only a scant fraction of the 2 billion pumpkins American farmers grew this year are destined for the dinner table — and that includes pretty much all of Libby’s proprietary variety, the dull-colored, butternut-shaped Dickinson squash.

False advertising? Who cares? The Ag Department says it’s perfectly all right that the canner universally calls it “pumpkin.” Same difference.

Try telling that to a child picking out his Halloween pumpkin, though, or the householder piling perfect specimens on her front porch. “Those” are undeniably pumpkins. They’re good for décor, not dinner.

But “pumpkin spice” is really a thing. It just doesn’t involve a molecule of its namesake. A little can of McCormick’s pie spice has been living out the twilight of its half-life here since my grandmother gave up housekeeping in 1970 — inedible for sure, but part of my family’s heritage.

That flavor that inspired you in October is composed of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice, the blend McCormick’s officially christened “pumpkin pie spice.” The venerable seasoning company created a real stir with the pre-packaged blend back in the 1950s. It took a load off the minds of home cooks who used no more than one pinch of allspice per year, yet fretted over wasting the remainder.

What you smell when you pull a pie out of the oven is the spice blend, not the squash. The aerosol that covers your cat odor is spice, not pumpkin, magic. The delicious aroma you inhale as you sip your Pumpkin Spice Latte is from your barista’s industrial-sized bottle of flavoring, not the produce department.

What puzzled me most last night, as I suctioned the last milliliter of my Blizzard from the cup, was this: How can a classic flavor so long anticipated and so fabulous, beginning right this moment, leave you totally cold by the day after Christmas?

And would Halloween night ever be the same for little Linus if he were waiting for the Great Squash?

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