Where’s the Pumpkin?

This fall has been a rocky one for pumpkin loving people.  With the dawn of October came a Starbucks pumpkin latte shortage that left coffee fans reeling with deprivation.  With its whip cream poof and milky autumnal hue, the pumpkin spice latte has practically overtaken its ancestor (the pumpkin, lest you forget) as the national mascot of Fall.  Yet what exactly is pumpkin spice?  Homemade recipes include a tablespoon or two of actual canned pumpkin pie mixture, which presumably dissolves in hot milk and espresso to create the ghost of a gourd flavor.

However, gourd is one food group that I am not particularly keen to add to my coffee.   Cinnamon, cardamom, mint, chai—those are all semi-acceptable additions to spice up our daily mud.  But pumpkin?  Might as well be sweet potato, or butternut squash.

What, then, explains the pumpkin spice latte’s popularity?  After five seconds of sleuthing, the answer becomes clear.  The Starbucks pumpkin spice latte has no pumpkin!  Hence, “pumpkin spice.”  Pumpkin spice, according to Starbucks, consists of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, the autumnal trifecta of spices.  In a neat twist of branding, the fall mascot is paraded in front of our eyes, cute and plump and vegetal, and then whisked away, never to be seen again.  Until Thanksgiving, that is, when “pumpkin spice” makes its encore appearance in pies, whose pumpkin content we traditionally make great effort in disguising.

If we read too deeply into the pumpkin’s plight, we can trace similarities between the New World squash and its indigenous cultivators.  But such a connection is perilous and academic, and, of course, not what anyone wants to be reminded of on the very day of celebration.  Instead, we’ll treasure our pumpkin-less lattes for a few sweet months before transitioning into the white wonderland of eggnog and peppermint, seeking snow in our beverages when it fails to appear elsewhere.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A Fruit Unlike Any Other: Avocado Milkshake

The longer you think about the avocado, the stranger it becomes.  What is it, exactly, and how did we become so accustomed to its buttery moon-face mashed up into everything from dip to ice cream?  The Oxford Companion to Food begins its definition of avocado as “Persea americana, a fruit unlike any other.”  Almost as if the dictionary writer could find no better words of description.

Visually, it’s a puzzle:  the exterior as lumpy and black as a dinosaur egg, with an inner chamber of pale green grading towards yellow.  Its pit is like polished wood, or as Fernandez de Oviedo described in 1526, “like a peeled chestnut,” resting in a hollow more perfect than any spoon could scoop out.

Before we go any further, let me discuss the real reason why I so recently became interested in avocados.  Do you ever find yourself thinking about words?  “Avocado” is a rather beautiful word — the regularly spaced consonants and internal assonance give it a vague symmetry — and I began wondering where the name comes from.  The Jamaicans call it alligator pear, English sailors called it “midshipman’s butter,” but in which language is such a pleasant name found indigenously?  As it turns, out, avocado is a derivative of ahuacatl, which happens to be the Aztec word for testicle.  The avocado grows in pairs, dangling from the tree so suggestively that even the Aztecs noticed, pausing long enough from their daily blood sacrifice to chuckle to themselves and bestow the avocado with its legacy.   With that in mind, the Oxford’s definition “a fruit unlike any other” develops an entirely new meaning.

In the seventeenth century, W. Hughes, physician to King Charles II of England wrote home from Jamaica about the avocado, “It nourisheth and strengtheneth the body, corroborating the spirits and procuring lust exceedingly.”  In the puritan colonies, to eat an avocado in public was to be labeled as a slut.  Naturally, when American farmers in the early 1900s were looking to boost their avocado sales, they decided upon an ad campaign specifically denying its aphrodisiac qualities.

These days, the avocado is hardly provocative.  In my mind it conjures up Mad Men era housewives and jello molds: tidy cold slices fanned atop iceberg lettuce like a slimy flower.  I wanted to liberate the avocado, find a recipe to showcase the fruit in all its delicate, voluptuous glory.  Milkshakes seemed like the way to go.


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Search for the Holy Broil: Welsh Rarebit

welsh rarebit tea and sympathy

Editor’s Note: Brooklyn resident, food writer and Serious Eats vet Hannah Smith-Drelich hops over to ES this week to answer a vexing food mystery — just what the eff is Welsh rarebit?

Welsh rarebit is a great thing. Its name conjures wet gloomy mountains and smokey cabins full of hunched, hairy people. At least, that’s what Wales looks like in my imagination. And Scotland, too. But apparently, Welsh rarebit doesn’t have that nostalgic throw-back effect (remember the good old Celtic days?) on everybody.

“It’s steak, right?” said one of my friends, suddenly concerned that maybe it wasn’t.

“I thought it was rabbit,” said another with barely-concealed disgust. She owned a pet bunny.

Welsh Rarebit is neither steak nor rabbit. In fact, it’s not even Welsh rarebit. The correct term is Welsh rabbit, which makes sense only when you put it into the context of the English making fun of the Welsh, which they did even back when everybody wore furs non-ironically. Welsh rabbit, at its simplest, is cheese on toast. The Welsh were notoriously fond of their cheese, and back in the 1700s they were also notoriously short on meat: hence, their version of rabbit was cheese on toast.

This tricky bit of linguistic mockery was ruined in 1785, when Francis Grose identified ‘rabbit’ with ‘rarebit’ in a document oddly titled  A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Word historians have had their knickers in a twist ever since (especially the folks at Merriam-Webster), as ‘rarebit’ exists nowhere else as an independent word. Eccentric grammarian W.H. Fowler wrote in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage: “Welsh Rabbit is amusing and right. Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong.”

Any way you slice it, this is not your average grilled cheese. Nor any dolled-up croque monsieur, for that matter. Welsh rarebit is, essentially, a fondue. Except instead of wine, there’s beer; instead of tiny Frenchy forks, there’s a thick hunk of bread foundering under the oozy weight of melted cheese. (Flash back to fur-wearing men hulking by a campfire.) Cheddar is most commonly used in recipes today, along with dried mustard, cream or milk, and Worcestershire sauce. In some British restaurants the dish is accompanied by something called Branston pickle.

“What is that?” I asked my waitress at Tea & Sympathy, a very British restaurant in Manhattan.

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