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The pumpkin industrial complex

Nancy Davis KhoI recently received the October Trader Joe’s print circular, the one that is for some reason illustrated with drawings of Edwardian shoppers telling jokes. The pamphlet’s main purpose is to inform shoppers about all the latest additions to the grocery store’s shelves and, as I leafed through, I noticed a new and disturbing trend.

Pumpkin, pumpkin everywhere. In baked goods, yes, but also in ravioli, and yogurt, and in creamed cheese and in moisturizing body butter. There are even pumpkin-flavored dog treats.

Do you remember how it was with pumpkin, as recently as five years ago? You would go to the supermarket for that one can of pumpkin puree needed for your contribution to the Thanksgiving dessert buffet. Half the time, they only had the big 28 oz. can, and your recipe only needed a cup of the orange paste, so you’d have leftovers to throw away. Or, since the grocery stores didn’t want to stockpile it either, there would be a 2-for-1 deal on cans of pumpkin puree and you’d end up discovering that second can in the back of the kitchen pantry in July and wonder what else to do with it, besides a few quick bicep curls.

But those days are past. All of a sudden, pumpkin is as ubiquitous as open letters to Miley Cyrus. From the lattes at Starbucks to the Pumpkin Spice Hershey’s Kisses (just threw up in my mouth a little) to the pumpkin pyramid-shaped end caps at Trader Joe’s, Cucurbita pepo is everywhere.

How did this elevation of pumpkin’s status, from lowly cobweb-in-cupboard gatherer to Main Dish, occur? I’m highly suspicious. Maybe it’s because I’m finally reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma right now. It’s gotten me so shook up that I have no choice but to blame the pumpkinization of our culture on the Pumpkin Industrial Complex.

Pollan explains in stomach-churning detail how the human relationship with another vegetable, corn, has evolved with the help of technology, commerce and science so that, and I’m paraphrasing here, we are now basically corn’s bitch. We can barely keep up with the agricultural biomass monster we’ve created, so we breed things to eat corn and corn byproducts that normally wouldn’t (cows, pigs, toddlers) just to not get buried by the next year’s harvest. Who wins? Companies like ADM and Cargill, but mostly corn. Corn stopped reading the Farmer’s Almanac years ago. This arrogant sonafabitch grain knows that if it were to rain grasshoppers and straight hydrochloric acid, America would still find a way to save corn. Because America needs its high fructose corn syrup and trans fatty acids.

I’m sure some ambitious pumpkins looked across the farm field one moonlit night and thought, stupid corn. We could do that. We could become pervasive. The big misshapen supersize pumpkins that look like Jabba the Squash, the adorable baby pumpkins that are sent home with first graders on field trips, and all the orange globes in between: they put their gourds together and decided they needed to diversify, and the Pumpkin Lobby was born.

Of course, we made it exceptionally easy for them to proceed with their takeover. How?

Every October, we carve mouths into them. Even corn was never given the ability to openly communicate the details of its uprising.

So when you hear a spooky whisper on your front porch in the waning days of October, don’t automatically assume it’s a trick-or-treater, or the wind. It could very well be Liam’s pumpkin saying to Emma’s: “So we’re agreed. Next year: we conquer the potato chip flavoring aisle, with a flanking assault on the soda category. And in 2015: pumpkin wine.”

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

— Nancy Davis Kho

Nancy Davis Kho is a writer in Oakland whose work has appeared in has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, EContent Magazine, The Rumpus and anthologies including Moms Are Nuts and Knowing Pains. An avid music fan, she writes about the years between being hip and breaking one at, and was recently named a 2014 BlogHer Voice of the Year, as well as Oakland’s inaugural Literary Death Match champ. She’s currently finishing up a memoir about her midlife music crisis.

Reflections of Erma