“Sorry, what was your name?” I was still shaking his slightly damp hand.
“Flor,” he said, pronouncing his “r” Frenchly. Please, his oversized blue eyes begged me, please don’t say—
“Yes. Eet eez ‘Florent’.”
I nodded. My coworkers, all hanging idly out of their office doors, began a muttered cacophony of “Flowent”, “Flogent” and other various gargling sounds. Flor was beside himself. He was the special French artist friend of an organizer at the non-profit I was working for. There was a certain utility in keeping him happy. “I was about to get some coffee. Do you want—,” I started.
“Yes. Zees is a good idea.” Florent practically led the way out of our office.
On the way to the coffee shop, he punctuated his exasperated silence with monosyllabic niceties as I gave him a walking tour of the block: “This is an area mainly populated by minorities and there is a strong ‘urban’ feeling here. See? The graffiti mural on that underpass there? Oh, here’s another.” I was pointing, and Flor was distractedly nodding. “Zees is very nice art,” he said. I worried that this might not be much better than staying to listen to my coworkers butcher his name.
The coffee shop we went into looks a bit out of place. It’s not really the sort of area for a coffee shop: people curling up with The New Yorker are scarce. Nevertheless, the employees at the non-profits and churches and community centers seem to appreciate the fact that all amenities are not lost once they get on the El, and besides, what is an intern for when there’s no coffee shop to frequent?
Looking at the menu, Flor lit up. He began a tumbling laugh, and as I smiled at him, waiting for an explanation, he said, “Pumpkin? Eet is sweet? Like desert?” He was pointing to a pumpkin spiced coffee. “Yes.” I nodded, smiling still. “Yes, it tastes like pumpkin pie.”
“In France, pumpkin is for salty. Zees is…” he paused, thinking of the right word, “weerd.” He ordered a small pumpkin spiced coffee and later, when he’d gone, I noticed that he’d thrown most of it away, the brownish hot liquid seeping onto the cheap plastic trash-can liner.
“It’s not jack-o-lantern pumpkin season anymore,” said Alan, the person who orders the pumpkins for Whole Foods. “Oh no, they only grow from early October until early November. Tons of pie pumpkins though. Those pretty much grow year round.” He nodded. “And they sell pretty well too. Pretty much they come in from Michigan and we sell them here right away. I guess a pumpkin pie probably tastes better when you don’t use the stuff in the can.”
The same is not true of the pumpkin bisque that Whole Foods sells only around this time of year. Robert, a salesperson in the soup and pizza section, says it’s made with canned pumpkin puree and that it’s a good seller. “This is very popular for this season,” he said. “It’s smoked.” Evidently, that just means it has loads of bacon in it.
While I was walking around Whole Foods, I formed the opinion that pumpkins really are just a medium. In pies and breads and coffees and soups, pumpkin is just a reason to add cinnamon and nutmeg, just a reason to call something autumnal. The number of pumpkin shaped cookies and pumpkin colored frosting and artificially pumpkin colored flowers and pumpkin candy corn and organic cotton shirts with pumpkins on them is overwhelming, and the fact that most of these things don’t have any pumpkin derivatives in them sheds some light on our idea of autumn.
I guess pumpkins just fit: They’re the right color for Fall, their bright orange mimicking the changing leaves. Cinnamon and nutmeg, classic “warming” spices, complement its rather bland flavor. And they’re fat and round, which, my friend is convinced, justifies one’s stuffing oneself at Thanksgiving.
Why the pumpkin though? Why not the zucchini or the eggplant or the acorn squash? Why orange? Why not dark green or burgundy? Why cinnamon and nutmeg? Why not garlic and cloves? The same reason, I guess, that it’s the bald eagle and not the pigeon or the wild turkey and the same reason it’s not cricket, but baseball. In light of Florent and the unlikely humor he found in sweet pumpkins, maybe what makes us American is that we can all appreciate a piece of the pie.