Real men eat pumpkin spice
Not just for latte's anymore

Real men eat pumpkin spice
Ari LeVaux - 11/09/2017

There are some traditions at elk camp that are not to be broken. There will be snoring, booze, dirty dishes, gratuitous belching, and profane utterances never to leave the sacred wall tent. There may or may not be animals taken, but there will be a party of hunters hitting it hard by day, looking to rest and replenish at night, and there is no prohibition against pumpkin spices at hunting camp. Quite the contrary, it turns out.

Until about 14 years ago, the pumpkin spices stayed in familiar culinary territory, adding their aromatic flavors to pies, cookies and the occasional glass of holiday eggnog. It was an open secret among adventurous chefs that the spices could be applied elsewhere, but doing so was rarely the selling point that it is today.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) was introduced by Starbucks in 2003. Since then, more than 200 million PSLs have been sold, and the pumpkin spice umbrella has grown far beyond the coffee chain. Pumpkin spices have become a major food trend, anointing about $500 million worth of food (and candle, soap and swag) product annually, and they appear in processed foods like Godiva truffles and Pringles potato chips, as well as the cookies and Pop Tarts that I impulse-purchased en-route to hunting camp. There is even Pumpkin Spice insurance coverage, because, you guessed it, pumpkin spices are good on everything.

We know they spice up a bowl of morning oatmeal, but would they work in a big greasy breakfast, or a chunky, savory supper? Would the pumpkin spices mix with whatever drink might be within arm’s reach of one’s camp chair? These are the questions I went to hunting camp to investigate.

As I prepared to get out of town, I decided to calibrate my pumpkin spice-o-meter to the original elixir: the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL). But the drive-thru line was 16 cars long, spilling onto the street. I wasn’t getting into that, and was afraid if I parked and went inside my car would get trapped by the ever expanding drive-thru line. I decided to wing it. The clock was ticking and I had to get out of town.

Anyway, Starbucks didn’t even invent the pumpkin spice latte, much less pumpkin spices, which have been used together for centuries. A batch of pumpkin spices is typically about half cinnamon, followed by smaller amounts of ginger, nutmeg, allspice and clove. But the formula is most customizable. I was in a rush, so I bought

some premixed powder at the store. I also bought a rotisserie chicken. Driving home, the smell of pumpkin spices mingled with the smell of baked chicken, and it was very right.

As I packed my stuff, I followed the guidance of an enthusiastic YouTuber “Talk Becky Talk” and learned her method of homemade PSL from scratch. Hers, like the Starbucks version, is prepared by mixing coffee with pre-made pumpkin spice syrup. Her spice mix, nutmeg-heavy and clove-free with added black pepper, demonstrates the range within which this mixture can be customized. 

Talk Becky Talk’s PSL recipe: Start with a pie pumpkin, or any other squash that’s good for baking like acorn, kabocha or blue hubbard. Peel it with a sturdy, sharp knife, clean out the seeds and innards, and cut up the meat into one-inch chunks.

Arrange a pound of the pumpkin/squash chunks in a baking pan, and sprinkle with 1⁄2 teaspoon allspice, a heaping teaspoon cinnamon, 1⁄2 teaspoon ground ginger, a pinch of black pepper, and one whole freshly ground nutmeg. Becky has quite a sweet tooth, and you can follow her as far as you dare. She adds a tablespoon of vanilla extract, three ounces soft brown sugar, and four tablespoons maple syrup. Think sticky caramel. Add 1/3 cup water, stir it up really well with a spatula, cover in foil, and bake at 350 for 50 minutes – until the pumpkin is nice and soft. Allow it to cool to room temperature. Put the remains in a saucepan, boil for 10 minutes, and allow to cool. Add water (I used almond milk) to dilute if it’s too thick, and blend until smooth and silky. Pour into a sealable glass jar.

Becky proceeds to make the best PSL ever. I jumped in my rented pick-up and drove through the night to the best hunting camp ever.

They mocked me when I arrived with my pumpkin spices. Soon enough, it was I who was doing the chuckling, as they lapped my pumpkin spices in whatever form I served them. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, I put my pumpkin spices where I wished and they loved it. The only (pumpkin spice-related) friction happened when some barbarian contaminated the pumpkin spices syrup with mayo.

I cooked with the premixed pumpkin spice powder and used the syrup as a condiment. The syrup made everything taste better, and the boys were particularly game to explore the various adult beverages beyond coffee with which Becky’s syrup could be mixed. Much progress was made.

Cooking with my dry pumpkin spice powder was rewarding too. As soon as it hit a greasy pan, the smell would permeate the camp. It was a cheerful smell, easing the regrets and soothing that whole-body ache that only comes from chasing an elk across miles of rough country.

For a snack, I pulled apart the remains of that rotisserie chicken and added the pieces to a pan of bacon, along with some chopped onions and 2 tablespoons pumpkin spice powder. It slowly cooked down into something of a Mexican mole. A dark, complex, rich, delicious chicken and bacon mole. If only I had saved the pumpkin seeds; a little chocolate powder would have put it over the edge.

I had other spicy ambitions as well. Pumpkin spice pizza, mini muffins, French toast. Maybe even some handmade pumpkin spice gnocchi with sage butter, if the boys were good. But after a hard day stalking the wily wapiti, it was all I could do to pour the appropriate form of pumpkin spices onto the appropriate dish, and enjoy.

Nobody complained about pumpkin spices cooked into the spicy elk chili or on the refried baked chicken, or the bacon and eggs, nor seemed to mind the syrup in Greek yogurt, or mixed with rum.

Alas, we never did get to try the spices pan fried with fresh elk. But someday we will, and that will be a cheerful smell indeed.

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