Fake Tradition: Loathing The Pumpkin Spice Latte

Sep 2, 2019

Social media has given rise to a host of seasonal debates among American Christians. Is Christmas too commercialized? Was Christmas originally a pagan holiday? Is Easter still a pagan holiday? Should Christians celebrate Halloween? Should Protestants celebrate Lent? Of course, in any debate over such questions there is also a healthy contingent of people who prefer to not take a position, but to scold everyone engaged in the debate about manners and “more important issues.” For my money, the scolds are usually the most sanctimonious of all, but who am I kidding? Social media was made for sanctimoniousness.     

Prior to the advent of social media, Christians discussed these matters from time to time, but they were hardly full-blown debates. Come December, two men might have stood around after church and weighed the relative merits of waiting to decorate the Christmas tree, or else a circle of mothers might have sipped coffee and traded stories about the spirit of communal goodwill which arises (or doesn’t) from trick-or-treating. However, the chance to argue our holiday beliefs with complete strangers online has made us bold, belligerent, and profoundly cocksure. While our boldness is typically reserved for matters of doctrine and childrearing, over the last several years the stakes have risen on a new seasonal issue: the pumpkin spice latte.

As of yet, there’s not so much a debate about pumpkin spice lattes as there is a debate about debating pumpkin spice lattes. Should people stop making fun of pumpkin spice lattes and simply let the people who enjoy them enjoy them without fanfare? Are there not more important issues? In a world beset by mass shootings and sex trafficking, are we really going to make people feel guilty for buying sugary coffee?

On the other hand, there’s a certain kind of think piece which aims at tenuously connecting some more or less banal cultural phenomenon with some far more horrific, repulsive social problem. The postmodern belief that everything boils down to a power struggle recently got the better of The Washington Post, which last week published an article entitled, “Pumpkin spice wars: The violent history behind your favorite Starbucks latte.” The article came with the tagline: “PSL is back, and so is its connection to centuries old genocide.” Who knew that Debbie Downer had a degree in journalism? Connecting cultural detritus with cultural collapse is also a favorite pastime of Christian bloggers, though, who love overthinking TV commercials, pop songs, slap bracelets, you name it.

At the same time overthinking pop culture entails dangerous blogger narcissism, underthinking pop culture has its casualties, as well. Pop culture is simply not worthy of the constant deep-read attention it receives from clickbait theologians, and yet a blithe, blind, uncritical acceptance of absolutely everything which comes gushing out the hydrant of popularity is simply the “unexamined life” Socrates warned of. So, while a great many pop cultural artifacts ought to be casually dismissed with nothing more than a sneer and a chuckle, I think the curious persistence of the pumpkin spice latte deserves a moment’s reflection.

The Starbucks pumpkin spice latte is now fifteen years old, which means the rise of the drink’s popularity loosely coincides with the rise of Etsy, the mass popularization of every band on the Garden State soundtrack, bespoke foodie-ism, “Put a bird on it,” distressed jeans, the Emergent church, An Inconvenient Truth, and the heyday of belief that “authenticity” was a virtue. The pumpkin spice latte was not marketed as a sophisticated drink, but a rustic drink, a shabby-chic drink born of the same spirit as Iron & Wine and the DIY-aesthetic. If there was a beverage for people with suspenders and industrial garbage repurposed as furniture, it was the PSL. To this day, it’s almost impossible to imagine an old man ordering one.

Perhaps some of the loathing now directed at the PSL is born of incredulity of the 2000s zeitgeist, which was so friendly, falsely serene, and industrious when compared with youth culture in the 90s, which was comparatively cynical and lazy, or youth culture today, wherein rhetorical violence and political ultra-dogmatism are de rigueur. Or, it might be that the Starbucks PSL marked the beginning of the pumpkin spice fad which continues to this day and seasonally inflicts millions with— well, it doesn’t actually inflict people with anything other than the option of buying a pumpkin spice variant of nearly any product, from floor waxes to dessert toppings. 

These reasons alone are really not sufficient to explain the disgust many Americans vent over what amounts to nothing more than one fake flavor among thousands. No one protests the existence of fake grape flavor, fake jalapeno flavor, or fake cheese flavor, after all. What is more, by this point in the Scientific Revolution, we should all be comfortable with the fact that fake flavors are subject to faddish rises and falls. Remember a few years ago when there was a chipotle version of everything? Now there’s a truffle version of everything. Next year, who knows? So, who cares if pumpkin spice is having a moment?    

The thing is, the PSL isn’t exactly having a moment. The fad is well over a decade old and doesn’t show signs of stopping. It’s no culinary fidget spinner. However, it’s not the fact that the PSL has overstayed its welcome that bothers people. I don’t believe anyone actually objects to the taste, because it’s no more cloyingly sweet than a half dozen other lattes every coffee shop in the country sells year-round. It’s not the pumpkin spice latte that anyone objects to. It’s the duplicitous and soul-crushing way the thing is advertised.

Given the mind-bogglingly vapid nature of modern advertising, bringing Americans to actually despise a certain advertising scheme is quite the trick. We are now so accustomed to being shown flawlessly-manicured, picturesque fast food sandwiches that pointing out the comparative unsightliness of the actual burger is considered uncouth. When the same clothing companies that have objectified and insulted women for the last thirty years suddenly demand social justice points for including a few plus-sized models in their latest underwear ads, the public is too tired to complain. Commercials are cleaner now than they were when I was a child, but the 2000s were also the decade wherein American companies went from advertising how good their products were to advertising how good their intentions were. “Buy these shoes and you’ll be cool” turned into, “Buy these shoes and you’ll be a good person.” I’m not content the virtue-signaling, back-patting ads that now sell beer are any less dirty than the ads depicting buxom girls which sold Budweiser back in the 80s. However, aside from a few gnat-straining special interest groups, Americans are largely content that the world of corporate advertising is a wanton sleaze factory. We’re all ad nihilists now.

So, what is it about PSL ads that gets stuck in so many craws? What is it about PSL ads that rises above the predictable moral grandstanding now typical of corporate promos and begs to be smacked down? It’s the use of the word “tradition” in PSL ads.

As someone who has written much about tradition over the last several years, I should say there are at least two kinds of tradition: cultural traditions and personal traditions. Because the word “tradition” suggests a thing which is both received and given, three parties are needed for any practice or habit to become an actual tradition: Person B receives a tradition (almost like a baton) from Person A, then Person B hands the tradition off to Person C. In any real tradition, Person A and Person C are connected by an intermediary, but never see one another face-to-face. Traditions make priests of all those who participate. A priest is heavenly enough to talk to god and earthly enough to talk to man, and so the priest becomes the almond-shaped intersectional middle of a Venn diagram. In the same way, tradition connects the invisible and spiritual past (Person A) to the visible and fleshly present (Person C) through Person B, who is spiritual in the sense that he knows Person A (who is dead) and fleshly in the sense that he knows Person C (who is still in the flesh).

These are conditions which are met by the highest kind of tradition. However, we all keep personal traditions and family traditions, as well, which do not bind together multiple generations of people in one shared identity but do bind a man’s psyche together. For instance, George Winston’s December is my all-time favorite album, but I have a tradition of only listening to it between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. This tradition is only ten years old, is not one which I am likely to pass on to my children and grandchildren, and thus it is really a bargain I have made with myself. This bargain has an entirely practical purpose: because I love the album, and because I love my own love of the album, I do not want to overplay it and become immune to its profundity. If I lost my taste for the album and quit listening to it, I would also lose the yearly recollection of every other time I have listened to it. These memories are recreated annually and date all the back to the time I was 14.

A great many traditions are bound to the natural cycles and rhythms of nature. Prior to the 20th century, certain foods were traditional to this or that holiday because they came in season around that time of year. However, because modern man has mastered nature, we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. In the past, men were traditional by necessity. Today, they must be traditional by choice.

It is upon this point that the PSL rubs many people the wrong way. The PSL is marketed as a “seasonal drink,” although it is sold from late August through early January. Last week, while the US sweltered in the low 90s, Starbucks trotted out their boots-and-jacket beverage, as though we should all just crank up the AC and pretend. The popularity of the PSL is based on its so-called “limited availability,” although Starbucks elongates PSL season by another week or two with each passing year. Given what a cash cow the PSL is, Starbucks now comes off like some attention-starved teenage girl who begins publicly celebrating her “birthday month” at midnight on the 1st. Despite such obvious, pathetic impatience, Starbucks has the gall to plaster the word “tradition” all over the flags, flyers, and posters which promote the drink. Celebrate tradition... Indulge in tradition... Share your tradition… Or some such drivel.

Every kind of tradition, be it personal or cultural, implies patience and grateful obedience to the past. If someone had a personal tradition of purchasing a PSL for the massive annual pre-Thanksgiving trip to the grocery store or the yearly pilgrimage to the big mall to do Christmas shopping— and were the PSL merely the cultural sacrament that set apart such events for anticipation and fond remembrance— then the PSL would be thought no different than Ghirardelli peppermint bark in December or box fans in June. But the fact of the matter is that the “tradition”-oriented marketing of the PSL not only assumes Americans have absolutely no respect for time, it brazenly incentivizes a disrespect for time while claiming to do the opposite. Starbucks might as well sell dirty magazines called True Love Waits.

Much ado about nothing? Mountains out of mole hills?

I’ll go out on a limb: the average American doesn’t actually have bigger fish to fry. Our inability to understand what tradition is, how tradition works, why tradition works, or distinguish real traditions from fake is one of the great intellectual health crises of our day. Many Americans are now so gullible as to justify their most important ethical beliefs with a flippant, “It’s 2019, people.” We no longer understand what time means. Obviously, eliminating the PSL isn’t going to solve this problem, although many people recognize that the ersatz-traditionalizing of soulless corporate products buries Americans under another layer of historical ignorance. This fall, skip the fakery.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

Subscribe to the CiRCE Institute Podcast Network

Stitcher iTunes RSS