This summer, I finally surrendered to the pumpkin spice creep

Here's why I'm breaking all my typical "food rules"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 8, 2023 12:30PM (EDT)

Cafe Latte (Getty Images/Claudia Totir)
Cafe Latte (Getty Images/Claudia Totir)

This was the summer that I finally surrendered to the ever-lengthening pumpkin spice creep. Since debuting in the fall of 2003, Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte has arrived progressively earlier each year ("creeping," one might say), moving back a few days at a time and then, eventually, a few weeks at a time until the cult-favorite beverage is now rumored to be releasing on August 29 of this year. 

My local coffee shop — a houseplant-forested storefront which trades in juicy-sounding specialty lattes with flavors like toasted banana sundae and spicy mango — isn't, however, burdened by the hitches and hurdles associated with an international seasonal beverage roll-out, so they offer their version of the PSL all year long. And I had one, on ice, as soon as there was a slight break in the sweltering heat of July, which went down as the hottest month on Earth on record. 

It was the middle of summer, but I was craving autumn. 

I'm not going to lie and say that it was a revelatory experience (though I did spend at least a little time grimly chewing ice and contemplating what fall weather, or the absence of it, would look like in 20 years). Their pumpkin spice latte, which is made with frothy vanilla oat milk, two shots of espresso and a clove-dominant spice mix, could almost pass for the horchata latte the cafe up the street sells, or even the oat milk latte with cinnamon that my boyfriend makes for me most mornings. However, it did make me think of how much of what we eat and drink is dictated by seemingly arbitrary rules. 

Some of these are, of course, rooted in tradition. For example, a Facebook recipe-sharing group of which I'm a member is currently in shambles as members are choosing sides in an argument over the "right" way to cook rice; the group is made of up of international home cooks, so the distance between cumin-rich Indian Jeera bhaat and the sugared-and-buttered rice of the American South feels pretty vast to some. 

"Have you even tasted REAL RICE?" one member asked, seemingly exasperated. 

Some of the rules are rooted in compulsion or perhaps neuroses. I remember reading in high school that Broadway icon Carol Channing would visit all of New York City's finest dining rooms, only to pull a dry chicken breast out of her purse and ask a waiter to plate it up. Channing's former publicist Scott Gorenstein confirmed this to Page Six, "We'd eat out a lot and mostly at the Russian Tea Room — but Carol never ate a bite off the menu." 

At the time, I was a young figure skater in the throes of disordered eating, which meant that I, too, kept a tote bag of "safe foods" — non-fat dressings, low-calorie snacks, a little yellow bulbous container of store-bought lemon juice — so that I wouldn't be tempted to break the food rules I had set for myself. 

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For years, every visit to the supermarket, a restaurant or a party meant consulting my mental guidebook to establish what was and wasn't verboten. Selecting an entree always became a tangle of rules. Rules that were meant to make me smaller. Rules that were meant to help me disappear. 

I think that's why the concept of intuitive eating, to which I largely subscribe these days, was initially both so freeing and anxiety-inducing for me. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, intuitive eating is about trusting your body to make food choices that feel good for you, absent of self-judgment or the influence of diet culture.

Once I was able to sort through some of the more serious rules that were actively damaging my relationship to my body and to food, it became easier to interrogate the more superficial guidelines that had previously guided how I ate and drank. The other day, for instance, I was ordering in from a Vietnamese and Thai restaurant on my block and couldn't decide between two excellent soups on their menu; instead of getting a "real" entree, I just got both and reveled in the sheer coziness of a self-made soup sampler. 

It's like buying yourself a birthday cake just because, or perhaps succumbing to your desire for fall and allowing yourself to become fully engulfed in the orange-tinged pumpkin spice wave inching closer and closer to our collective shores. 

Rules are, after all, made to be broken. 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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