Someone tell me, when did corn mazes and pumpkin patches become a THING?
When I was in Ecuador, I sought to capture in this blog some of the things that were new and different to me – the cultural experiences that help make Ecuador what it is – the colorful events, music, and landscape. While I was having those experiences I tried to think about what it was about my own country that made it unique and colorful. And sometimes I drew a blank. Not because there’s nothing noteworthy – just because we tend to overlook the things that are right in front of us. Now that I’m home, I find slices of ‘Americana’ popping out all over the place – particularly in our uniquely North American autumnal celebrations.
Once, I was asked by an Ecuadorian, ‘What are the uniquely estadounidense (remember, that means ‘United Statesian’) holidays?’ Of course, the obvious came to mind right away: Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. But I missed so many other big celebrations. Like Superbowl Sunday. And local homecoming football days. And I should have mentioned Halloween.
Sure, Halloween is celebrated in some form or another in other countries. But here in the US, we have made it a phenomenon. The Halloween candy comes out in August. And sometime in late September, pumpkins become all the rage. (It would happen earlier, I think, if pumpkins would only ripen more quickly.) Like Christmas, Halloween is now a month-long celebration as people decorate their houses in orange lights and their yards with giant inflatable pumpkins, ghosts, and witches.
And what would all this be without an annual family trip to the pumpkin patch/corn maze/fall-harvest-extravaganza? Farms across the country transform themselves into veritable autumn wonderlands (or, at night, the live version of a cheesy horror flick ), where families flock on sunny autumn weekends – parents stroll along sipping pumpkin-spiced lattes purchased at Starbucks before leaving the city, kids frolick in boxes of giant corn kernels, and everyone waits in line to ride pedal carts, or launch pumpkins across an empty field, or fight zombies in a corn field with a paintball gun from the window of a dilapidated school bus.
And, of course, the highlight is the opportunity to get lost in a corn maze. If you come at night, you can shell out a larger wad of change to have teenagers dressed as monsters jump out at you from behind the dried stalks of corn.
And if you get hungry, you have a choice of United Statesian delicacies to choose from: fried oreo cookies, fried Snickers bars, funnel cakes, churros (yeah, not distinctly estadounidense, but I don’t imagine they fill them with Oreo stuffing in Mexico), cotton candy, and for the health-nut, Kettle corn (with healthy dollops of butter, sugar, and salt).
These autumnal celebration are somehow inextricably linked to the pumpkin-spice phenomenon. I’m sure my non-US friends might find this fascination we have with pumpkins a bit over the top. It IS a bit over the top. Every year now, as the first hint of yellow emerges in the trees, pumpkin-flavored everything becomes all the rage.
I’ve never noticed it as much as I have this year. Trader Joe’s, which is basically a budget Whole Foods chain, is the craziest. How about some pumpkin-cookie-butter-crunch to spread on your sandwich? Pumpkin tortilla chips to go with that pumpkin salsa? Maybe you’d like to make some pumpkin scones for breakfast and spread them with pumpkin butter. Or, have some pumpkin-spice oatmeal to go with your pumpkin-spice-flavored coffee? Or TJ’s version of pumpkin Oreos?I admit, I couldn’t resist a little pumpkin-ness invading my own shopping cart. When I was a kid, ‘pumpkin cookies’, were simply homemade sugar cookies cut in the shape of pumpkins and frosted with jack-o-lantern faces. Pumpkins themselves were only eaten in the form of pie at Thanksgiving – and maybe at Christmas.
Like I said, I don’t know when all of this became a THING. A cultural phenomena. I think I blame my Gen-Xer cohort for not only wanting to recreate their own fond childhood memories for their own children, but morph those memories into perfection. Halloween today has become the Norman Rockwell version of what it was when I was a kid. Not having kids myself, I’ve missed the evolution of Halloween. If I had kids, I’m sure I would be equally responsible for this autumnal transformation.
But I don’t let not having kids get in my way of having fun. I suppose I am buying into this cultural phenomenon of a hyped-up version of autumn, in some sense. Corn mazes are addicting. Finding my way through a corn maze reminds me of trying to find my way through the maze of some foreign city. And I love finding the perfect pumpkin amidst the smell of funnel cakes on crisp autumn air – who doesn’t?
But, perhaps my enthusiasm for autumn stems from the fact that I live in Colorado – where autumn is a real thing. Back in California, autumn was something that stretched from mid-November, when the leaves started drying out and turning color, to early-February, when the buds of new leaves would finally push the old ones off the trees. It wasn’t such an ephemeral thing as it is here in the heart of the US.
Colorado’s sunniest weather of the year occurs from mid-September to mid-October, and that can set the stage for a spectacular autumn show – especially when it begins as it did this year, with a supermoon eclipse on September 27th. The end of autumn – which I’m expecting any day now – is usually marked by a good freeze or snowfall, when perennials keel over and trees shed the last of their leaves in one fell swoop.
In the mean time, autumn demands appreciation – in the few weeks when flecks of gold and the bits of red dot the landscape – and it should probably all be savored with something pumpkin-spice flavored.