Every month has its own flavor. December tastes like candy canes and hot cocoa. March tastes like Shamrock shakes. July is hot dogs and grill char. Then there’s October, when everything is suddenly covered in goddamn pumpkin spice. Who would’ve thought pumpkin would become such an omnipresent gourd? It’s a nearly inedible fruit whose flesh is eaten only out of desperation, and it requires a sinus-clearing amount of spices just to choke it down.
This particular spice combination—cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, ginger—has been in existence as long as American grandmas have served pumpkin pie. But at some point, likely with Starbucks’ 2003 introduction of the pumpkin spice latte, it achieved a new, weird intensity of American obsession. You know something’s popular when it inspires prophylactic parody.
Trader Joe’s, America’s lifestyle blogger-turned-grocer, hasn’t just embraced pumpkin spice season. In many ways, it’s become its chief marketing agency. Walk into one of its stores this time of year and your retinas may readjust to a permanent orange: It’s a veritable pumpkin bacchanal inside, where no product is safe from being blanketed in its autumnal spicing. Recently I wandered into my neighborhood T.J.’s in search of a few pumpkin-flavored items to test. Here I present a random sampling of all the pumpkin spice things I could get through before I’d had enough.
Somewhat vegetal tasting at the beginning, followed by sugar, then some meek spices. Not great. Even after a prolonged soaking, the milk didn’t even taste pumpkin-y or fall-spiced. And the O’s just tasted a little like cardboard. To be fair, they are vegan and gluten free, so are made with brown rice, which lists ‘cardboard-y taste’ among it’s characteristics. Not buying this one.
Petite Pumpkin Spice Cookies
Tastes like a ginger snap. They’re likable little cookies, albeit quite sweet: shortbread with yogurt coating and sprinkles. Not tender, buttery shortbread—slightly grittier. Perhaps that’s what the yogurt veil is concealing. I like the added crunch from the sprinkles. In this case, the lily (or squash blossom) has been gilded. No pumpkin taste, but the descriptions and ingredients seem to stress “pumpkin spice” as the flavor, as though the pumpkin now owns cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. That said, I would shame-eat 15 or so in a single-sitting.
Pumpkin Organic Frosted Toaster Pastries
These are a flaky, buttery pastry (our suggestion is to toast on lowest setting so it doesn’t burn). But again, the pumpkin-flavored filling is cloyingly sweet. Pass.
More like Pumpkin No-No’s, amiright folks?! Cloying creme filling, slightly metallic-tasting edge to it. Again, we’re trying to make a squash into a treat—it’s going to take a whole lot of sugar to convince anyone they are indulging in their squash dessert. I didn’t want a second one.
Tastes like liquified pumpkin pie, which is not the worst thing. There is apple juice, and sweet cream powder in the ingredient list. But soup is a chance to show off the savory, nutty qualities of pumpkin, like the French maman dish Soupe au Potiron, which is a traditional pumpkin soup dish, verging on a bisque. I wouldn’t call this a bisque, though. The salt factor is fairly high (nearly half your daily sodium allotment if you eat the full box), yet the end flavor is pretty flat. Would I eat it again? Yep, perhaps with a drizzle of sour cream or browned butter, and some toasted hazelnuts.
Would I buy it? Sure, like I buy other things at Trader Joe’s that feel like a snooty thing to eat for lunch and hope my co-workers notice.
Gluten-Free Pumpkin Pancake Mix
I don’t have a gluten intolerance, but I’m quite fond of these. They are easy to make and tasted like I was eating some thing relatively healthy for breakfast (a delusion, naturally). They’re not light and fluffy pancakes, more on the toothsome side, but I do enjoy that chew. The slight pumpkin flavor and spices have an affinity for maple syrup or sliced bananas, or even just melted butter. I would buy these even after approved “pumpkin time.”
Pecan Pumpkin Instant Oatmeal
When I read the package’s description as a ‘delightful holiday oatmeal’ I literally had no idea what the hell that meant. “Wheee, children, it’s time for your Yuletide treat: holiday oatmeal!” I can hear the tears now. It’s only slightly tastier than papier mache paste with allspice. Where was the rich pumpkin taste I was promised? The ingredient list is fairly wholesome, minus some caramel coloring, so it is the real deal. Pumpkin, oats and spices.
Will I eat it? Yes, it’s oatmeal and the bar for deliciousness is set pretty low. Will I feel festively autumnal when eating it? Alas, I will not.
Cheesecake doesn’t need anything else besides cheese and cake. Mango cheesecake, strawberry cheesecake, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos cheesecake? All intriguing, all superfluous. In that spirit, Trader Joe’s pumpkin cheesecake is similarly superfluous, but for what it is, it’s not bad. And the reason is the pumpkin spice lies just enough in the background—I’ll peg it at a level 3 of 10—for the base cheesecake to do its thang. Still, it doesn’t need the pumpkin, but ‘tis the season. Comes frozen, requires defrosting.
Pumpkin Spice Coffee (Keurig pods)
This is… not good. It’s artificial tasting, yet with little discernible spice. It also smells earthy, mulchy, and vaguely of compost—like coffee brewed in a hippie commune.
“This Pumpkin Walks Into A Bar...” Cereal Bars”
Now, these are quite delicious, by far the best of the bunch sampled today, because it tastes like apple pie. Honey, cinnamon, nutmeg. apple powder—the works! And almost no discernible pumpkin flavor. Very soft texture. Without noticing, I ate nearly the entire bar, forgetting I was just taste-testing. It just didn’t taste like pumpkin. Which after so many pumpkin-spiced foods, is fine by me.