Flavors of Fall: Apple Cider or PSL?

by Gabriel Sabo & Joshua Templin

There are so many festive flavored drinks being sold this Thanksgiving, but two FSJ writers weigh in on two to decide which is better: Apple Cider or Pumpkin Spice Latte?

It’s Turkey Day, and many of our readers are preparing for a messy dinner, while some other readers are preparing for a messy debate. Something about the extended social contact with our extended families means our feast often feels more like a town hall forum. And while politics are often a sore subject at any family gathering, this year seems especially likely to propel us to pugilism. So scary is the prospect of imminent argument, that The New York Times has offered a rough guide to navigating prandial politics.

But if your family is itching to get into it, there could be a topic that’s not as heavy as you’ll feel after gorging on turkey. In the interest of promoting a familial filibuster that’s a little fluffier, we’re presenting two writer’s opinions on what is the better fall flavor: apple cider or pumpkin spice latte? We hope that you’ll enjoy your debate, or failing that, your Thanksgiving.

-JT

Apple Cider is Autumn’s Flavor

Autumn, the harvest season, is one of various tastes. But in recent years, one taste seems to have dominated: pumpkin spice. Now, when fall drops so does the taste of the pumpkin, and orange-colored clove and cinnamon flavoring is everywhere — in coffee . . . in cakes . . . in lollipops . . . in running shoes.  But all this rage about the pumpkin has displaced what really should be fall’s fruit — the apple — and the sweet nectar that comes from it, cider.

Picture yourself going to a pumpkin patch, wanting to pick out your favorite pumpkin. It’s a sad affair. You drive to the patch, maybe taking a tractor to get out among the orange orbs. Then to choose your pumpkin, you have to get down-and-dirty to pull your prize from the creeping (creepy?!) vine. Pumpkins, being born in the dirt, are covered with muck, grime, and grossness.

When you picture yourself going to an apple farm, you don’t think of dirt; you think of grassy orchards. To get to the apples, you stroll out among rows of trees, their branches reaching skyward, to the sun and blue. And to make your pick, you too reach skyward, selecting a shiny sphere that you eat immediately.

Both pumpkin and apple are fruits. But calling a pumpkin a fruit is charitable. Pumpkins are related to the gourd family, which, as Merriam-Webster tells us, are “various hard-rinded inedible fruit of two genera often used for ornament or for vessels and utensils.” Inedible … gross … better used as a spoon than as food in one. This hardly sounds like a good flavor base for a cup of coffee.

But the apple is the epitome of edible: the fruit of original temptation. Pumpkins, on the other hand, require gobs of sugar and spice for flavor before they are even remotely palatable.That apple picked from the tree branch above is sweet immediately and on its own. You can’t eat raw pumpkin.

You have to consider “mouth feel” too. Pumpkins start off far from appetizing. Any culinary use begins with cleaning gunk from them, and even when cooked, the dish made from this gourd looks like a Jack-o’-lantern’s vomit.

The “snap” of a bitten apple is a different experience altogether. The apple is crisp. The firm pieces are a pleasure. The pumpkin pools on your palate, prompting a gag (which might sound like “gourd”).

Okay, applesauce is like that too. But no one likes applesauce.

Let’s not bad-mouth pumpkins altogether; they are perfectly fine as fall decor. We carve spooky faces into pumpkins to ward off evil. And they are just ugly enough to do this job. If you grew up in the nineties, you might remember how freaked out you were by R. L. Stine’s Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns.

But anything that’s frightening enough to ward off evil for the year might not be something you should put in your stomach.

-GS

Pumpkin Spice is Everything Nice

Come fall, pumpkin spice is everywhere. It’s the pixie dust of the season, putting us in an autumnal mood—and, true, sometimes a stupor. But let’s not crucify the flavor itself for the sins of marketers: pumpkin spice, in the right proportions, is delicious.

A lot of companies are trying to ruin a good thing. This fall you’ve seen everything from pumpkin spice Oreos to pumpkin spice Peeps to pumpkin spice pet chews on the shelves at your grocery. According to marketers, anything inherently fun (like adult coloring books) should be replicated over and over. They inevitably will start making pumpkin spice-flavored pumpkins, like some kind of focus-group ouroboros.

Despite the seemingly endless parade of pumpkin spice foods, Starbucks’ PSL – the item that probably started this whole trend – is a perfect invention, inspired by the very spirit of autumn itself, and it should be enjoyed every fall. Drinking this bevie is an act of genuflection to the collective powers of allspice and squash.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with the flavor of apples – they’re sweet and delicious – but apples and every possible juice combination they produce are available year-round at any grocery store. The flavor hardly feels seasonal these days. Combine that with the fact that apple cider is just one of a hundred fruit juice concoctions with a similar flavor profile, and cider seems less and less interesting.

Pumpkin, though, has a unique flavor that we don’t usually add to beverages. Pumpkins have a delicate, subtle sweetness that’s balanced by adding nutmeg and the more peppery, woody flavor of cinnamon. Fall is the season that’s closing the door on life, so the flavor of this season shouldn’t be a riot of sweetness; that flavor should be somewhat melancholy and want some coaxing into vibrancy. Add to the taste a strong espresso and some milk, and you’ve got a drink that calls to mind Indian chai masala, but is uniquely autumnal and American.

Some companies have sweetened the PSL even further, but these drinks are an aberration. True PSLs should be semisweet, highlighting the spice notes rather than raw sweetness. There are many imitators throwing their scarves in the ring, but Starbucks has withstood the onslaught, and hopefully will stick around after the fad has fizzled out.

Maybe the PSL has become a little cliché, but sometimes seasonal traditions are supposed to be basic: they remind us that we’re part of a community, that we are interconnected with the seasons and each other. This fall, if you’re planning on spending a brisk night walking among the dried leaves, or watching The Wizard of Oz under a blanket with your loved ones, drink a Pumpkin Spice Latte. Let it remind you that fall doesn’t last forever and it should be savored while it’s here.

-JT