On being … a matter of taste?

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ll start with a confession: other than having had pumpkin pie, I’ve never had a pumpkin spiced candy, coffee, or other store-bought goodie. Or have I? I guess that depends on whether you consider any foods that have cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and cloves “pumpkin spiced”.

I realize there are many reasons we associate pumpkins with the fall. In fact, in many ways, it makes perfect sense, since pumpkins are ready for harvest about now. And, given that they’re in season, it’s natural to find pumpkin-based food on menus this time of year, everything from soups to breads, to muffins and, of course, pies.

I also can imagine how the rich blend of spices we’ve come to know as “pumpkin spice” came about. I’m sure that when folks first thought about making a pie out of the erstwhile orange gourd they realized they’d have to do something to jazz it up (or cover it up, depending on your view). In addition to using a healthy dose of sugar, aromatic spices like ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg worked well with the otherwise fairly bland pulp. And once that caught magic blend on, spice sellers started pre-blending the spices so that folks could simply buy “pumpkin spice”, much the way we buy other blends, like chili and curry powder.

I get all that. What I don’t get is why so many food companies have suddenly decided we all want pumpkin spiced things. The first time I noticed something “pumpkin spiced” was Starbucks’ latte a few years ago. It wasn’t until later that I noticed it was a seasonal offering. Though I’ve never tried one, I can see how those spices would work with coffee.

So, when McDonald’s recently announced it too was offering a pumpkin spiced latte, I assumed they must figure Starbucks has done pretty well with them so why not serve up a little competition. And of course, Dunkin’ Donuts and my Canadian favourite – Tim Hortons – weren’t going to let the bandwagon pass without hopping on.

But when I was in the states on the weekend I couldn’t believe it when I saw pumpkin spiced M&Ms. Yes – M&Ms! (I should mention, they’re only available at Target in the U.S.) Apparently there are also pumpkin spiced Hershey Kisses, Planters pumpkin spiced almonds, and Kraft makes pumpkin spiced marshmallows – to name a few of the current offerings.

Until this explosion of pumpkin spiced foods, I thought – naively – that food trends were taste combinations that naturally caught on. The whole bacon-infused everything rage from a few years ago is an example of a “trend” I assumed spread naturally. I was introduced to that trend at a fine restaurant (one with a pedigreed chef), where a bacon-infused (chocolate) truffle was included on a cookie plate I ordered. (I didn’t care for it.) More recently “salted caramel” and “red velvet” seem to have become the IT flavours. (Sorry to say, I won’t be making room on my bar shelf for either salted caramel or red velvet flavoured vodka – they just don’t appeal.)

This whole pumpkin spice phenomenon brought back memories of an eye-opening discovery I had years ago when I was introduced to the ColorMarketing Group (CMG) for a magazine article I was writing. The CMG is a non-profit association that “forecasts” colours that are used for pretty much all products – from all housewares to wall paint, to clothing and cars. According to CMG’s website, the association’s “major focus is to identify the direction of color and design trends”. The reality is that they pretty much dictate the colours that virtually all manufacturers use.

When I first heard about CMG their forecasted colours included light, bright greens and purples. Well, sure enough, after that I couldn’t walk into a store without seeing CMG’s finger prints on everything. Personally, I found it disheartening. I’d noticed that tastes in colours seemed to go in cycles, but I never imagined that an association of international manufacturers actually drives these trends – but they do.

I can’t help but think that this whole pumpkin spice phenomenon is courtesy of some food trend “forecasting” association having its way with us. I realize no one’s forcing me to eat pumpkin spiced anything and there’s really no point in letting it bother me that pumpkin spiced products are everywhere. Besides, I’m sure pumpkin spiced goods will give way to eggnog flavoured things long before the first snowflake flies this winter.

So, maybe I should just phone a few friends and meet for a latte – perhaps a salted caramel, or red velvet, or maybe even a pumpkin spiced one. After all, if the food industry has its way, our resistance is futile.

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona


On being … an island custom worth adopting

By Ingrid Sapona

Waving is one of the first things we learn. It seems such a little thing and yet, from a developmental point of view, apparently it’s quite an important thing. I’ve always found observing a baby transition through the wave learning steps particularly sweet. The early attempts almost always involve a kind of backward wave, as babies hold up their teeny little palm facing themselves – rather than toward the person the wave is intended for. At some point something clicks and they miraculously begin waving with their palm facing out.  

And then, in kindergarten or first grade or so, kids start feeling comfortable waving hello to strangers. For kids on a school bus – especially if they’re on a field trip – waving at cars in hopes folks will wave back is practically a game. I never know whether the game’s about them seeing me, or me seeing them. Regardless, my natural inclination (and I suspect that of most adults) is to smile and wave back.  

Sadly, at some point, we pretty much stop spontaneously waving at strangers.

Last weekend I took a day trip to Pelee Island, the southern-most part of Canada. The island, which sits in Lake Erie about half way between Ontario and Ohio, is about 16 square miles. About 150 people live there year-around and about 1500 in the summer. I went there mainly to check out a winery on the island.

To get to the island you take a ferry. The ride takes about 90 minutes from the Ontario mainland. The day I visited there was one ferry in the morning and one leaving the island late in the afternoon. Though the ferry is big enough to accommodate cars, I was told the winery was not too far from where the ferry lands. And, in terms of exploring the island after visiting the winery, I decided I’d rent a bike on the island for a few hours, because it was cheaper than bringing the car on the ferry.

When I got off the ferry I was surprised I didn’t see a sign pointing in the direction of the winery. Given that my time was pretty limited, rather than risk getting lost, I decided to ask someone for directions.  I saw a gentleman sitting in the ferry dock parking lot in a golf cart and so I asked him. He pointed in one direction and said the winery was about a third of a mile. I thanked him but before I could head off, he said he was just waiting to pick up the daily newspaper that was brought over on the ferry and if I could wait a couple minutes, he’d give me a lift to the winery. Though I don’t usually ride with strangers, I figured a senior in a golf cart wasn’t too dangerous, so I said, “Sure, thanks!”

As we made our way down the road, I chatted with Bob (not his real name). Turns out he spends summers on the island and has done so for 20 years. As we were chatting, a car headed up the road toward us. When we got close, Bob waved and the other driver waved back. After we passed the car, Bob said to me, “Everyone on this island waves.” Frankly, I didn’t think the waving required an explanation – I figured they knew each other, given how much time Bob’s spent there.

Later that afternoon, as I was biking around, the driver of a car that was headed toward me waved. I didn’t think anything of it and I waved back. Then a car came up from behind and passed me and – as he did – the driver waved. A few minutes later, another car passed me and sure enough, up – out of the window – came a wave.

Every time it happened, I thought about Bob’s seemingly off-hand comment. By the time I was ready to return the bike, over a dozen cars passed me and nearly every time, someone in the car waved. It was such a standard occurrence, I suspect the three who didn’t wave were tourists – not locals!

When I dropped off the bike, I asked the two twenty-something girls behind the desk what was up with the waving? They giggled and one of them said, “Yeah – it’s kind of an unwritten law around here. Everyone waves. When I go back to school in Windsor after spending the summer here, it takes me a couple weeks to stop doing that.”

On the ferry ride back, I couldn’t help but think about the waving and about how quirky it seemed. Since I’ve been back, I’ve told the story to a few friends. Their reactions are similar, admitting that a friendly wave of acknowledgment between strangers is pretty unusual, and yet, kind of delightful.

I’m sure your parents were thrilled when you learned to wave. And, as a kid, I’ll bet you waved to passing strangers in hopes they’d notice and wave back. And yet, at some point – like many adults – you probably stopped acknowledging strangers with a wave. But you know what? There’s no reason you can’t take it up again – just ask the folks on Pelee Island. I say give it a try, I think you’ll be surprised at how nice it feels to recognize – and be recognized by – strangers.

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona