By Julia Gumm
While fall doesn’t officially begin here in the northern hemisphere until tomorrow, it’s influence has been laying claim to the landscape for some weeks now. The emerald green of summer has yellowed like old newspaper, the evening air is laced with frost, and the hickory nuts are being squirreled away as fast as they can fall. Night is winning it’s tug of war with the long summer days, the winter constellations are rolling back into the sky and everyone in America is walking around nursing a hot pumpkin spice flavored latte as if it were precious mother’s milk.
Good Lord! This pumpkin spice explosion is a bit much, no? Pumpkin cider, pumpkin coffee, pumpkin beer, pumpkin custard, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin hot chocolate, pumpkin smoothies, pumpkin pie, pumpkin pumpkin…Don’t get me wrong, I love it. It’s America’s best indigenous crop*, no doubt. Decorative, delicious and nutritious! Did you know that before they came to America and discovered this native festive field orb, the Europeans had to use hollowed out turnips for their Halloween Jack-o’-Lanterns? I’m not one to buy into the idea of “American Exceptionalism”, but turnip Jack-o’-Lanterns? Good one, Europe.
Though I am an unabashed fan of this wizard of winter squash, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the ever-growing list of Pumpkin! flavored items down at the local corporate coffee house. Give it a rest, guys. You’re gonna ruin pumpkin for everyone. After a few more years of this kind of market grab, no one’s gonna to be able to stand looking at the damn things. Pumpkins will be reduced to nothing but livestock fodder. We’ll all go back to our usual concoctions for the duration, patiently waiting for peppermint and gingerbread flavored slop to slip into our coffee cups come December.
Or so I think. Every year I say to myself “Ok, this is it. Everyone is going to remember how pumpkined out they got last year and they won’t care about the opening of pumpkin season. When they see the huge banner for pumpkin flavored everything over at Dunkin’ Donuts, they will snort at such a pathetic plea to get their business and keep on driving. They’ll go about their curcubita pepo-free lives until Thanksgiving, when they demurely accept a single slice of pumpkin pie and that’ll be that for the year.” But no! People are excitedly sucking down ye olde spicy squash swill come Labor Day! What gives?
Self-medication, don’t you know. Stay with me on this one.
In the temperate zone, fall is a season of rapid transition. Suddenly, after climbing up the wheel of the year into the zenith of hot air, we drop off after the dog days of August and we drop off hard. My birthday falls on September 14th and as a kid, I’d always hope for good enough weather for a pool party. And it never happened once. As late as the week prior my special day, the air and water would remain promisingly balmy. I’d get my hopes up, only to have them dashed as the evening temperatures inevitably turned cold, rendering our pool an icy vat of pain that no kid in their right mind would willingly get into to play Marco Polo with me. Sigh. I eventually gave up and planned my party for a few weeks later with a Halloween theme. The middle of September is just too hard to peg.
In fact, this past week when it was my birthday again, I stamped by feet and pouted like an eight year old as the powers that be decided to sweep in with the first really chilly day of the year, like a sarcastic gift: To Julia, Love Fate. I had been crossing my fingers for a last swim in the lake. Instead, I froze my buns off and fantasized about pumpkin roll will I sipped hot coffee wondering if just a teensy squirt of that ubiquitous flavor of fall wouldn’t be such a bad ideer after all.
Transitions are tough on a body. All summer long, the system is on cool-down mode. The air is hot and moist, dinner consists of things like melon and cucumber, nothing feels better than a cool breeze and ice water is life blood. When the air suddenly shifts come autumn, melon, cucumber and ice water will zap you of body heat like a trek through the arctic and what was once a cool breeze becomes the icy draft of death. You begin to crave heavier meals full of grounding foods and warming spices. Very simply, our needs change come fall and they change pretty quickly. If we don’t take care to ease our bodies into the circumstance of the season, we can become sick, fatigued and depressed.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, each season is ruled by an element and their corresponding organs of the body. Fall is the time for metal, which deals with lungs and the large intestine. According to TCM, if people don’t take care of themselves properly come autumn, they are setting themselves up for respiratory illness, digestive distress, constipation and even sadness. Hey, they don’t call it the melancholy season for nothing. We should be moving away from cooling foods like raw fruits and vegetables and balancing out the chill of the season with warmth. Cooked, starchy foods with enough moisture like say, pumpkin, are ideal- as are beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, cooked apples, butternut squash…the lucky thing is that all this stuff is in season right now. Coinikydink?
Guess what else is great for balancing out the cool, drying effects of autumn on the body. Hot beverages! And warming spices, like let’s see here….cloves, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom. Oh sorry, I was reading a pumpkin pie spice label. Let me pull up that Chinese medicine thingie again. Ok, here we are. Let’s see, we got cloves, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom…wait just a darn minute…
In the traditional Ayurvedic practice of India, fall is ruled by the vata dosha. The three doshas or temperaments being vata, pitta and kapha, each of them ruling a different season and body type. Vata is a windy condition, dry, cool and changeable- kinda like fall. When vata increases it’s influence on the weather, Ayurveda recommends that you balance out with vata pacifying foods and herbs. No one likes feeling dry and cold. Think coughs, chapped lips, dry skin, cold extremities…you know, what happens to you every year right around this time. In the extreme, fall can cause flare ups of arthritis, nervous conditions and even depression. Again, what is recommended are warming spices and herbs, cooked root vegetables, sweet fruits and an avoidance of drying, cooling foods like iced coffee and raw fruit. Gear yourself towards soups, stews, roasts, warm spiced milk or cider. C’mon. You know you want it. It’s fall for pete’s sake.
After learning about this stuff, it’s fun to look back on how I could have benefited from understanding it in the past. One September I got a job at a health food store, and the policy was that employees could have all the bruised fruit and expired perishables they could eat, for free. Well I ain’t no fool. I ate piles of bruised pears, apples and cold, old yogurt and kombucha almost exclusively. You’d think my colon would be squeaky clean, right? All that fiber! All those probiotics! Nope. For the first time in my life I became constipated. And when I say constipated, I don’t mean a little backed up. I mean my colon didn’t budge for almost two weeks. Everyone kept telling me to eat some fruit. Ha! Things didn’t clear up until I gave up the cold raw foods, free as they were, and went with my seasonal cravings for warm, heavy foods, spiced tea and cider.
So, seasonal latte lovers, swig away. That paper mug o’pumpkin potion is born of a wisdom as old as mankind’s tenure in the temperate zone. Take heart. You aren’t merely falling prey to the whims of obscenely rich men, sitting ‘round boardrooms inventing ways to subliminally subjugate your will so you steer yourself into their drive-thru’s, frothing at the mouth while you wait for that first sip, oh so spicy, yet so sweet…
Ok, maybe you are. But that’s ok. As long as you don’t fall too hard and get down with the pumpkin spice margarine, it’s all actually sorta good for you. And while you’re at it, dress warmly enough, ditch the raw veggies, eat the heavier, denser foods your body instinctively craves, cut out the cold water and what the hey, bake a couple of pumpkin pies. See if you don’t feel better this fall.
*other contenders for the Americas’ best indigenous crop include tomatoes, potatoes, corn, tobacco, cocoa, vanilla, avocado, chili peppers, guava, peanuts, etc. What the hell did people eat before they found this place?