An Alternative to THE Flavor of the Fall
Matt McMahon | Wednesday, October 14, 2015
When I read that the fast food restaurant Steak ‘n Shake was offering a seasonal Speculoos Cookie Butter Milkshake I audibly gasped. Then, I referred to my schedule and found the earliest time I could rush to try one.
For the unluckily uninitiated, Speculoos is a Belgian and Dutch spiced shortbread biscuit usually baked and eaten around fall and winter holidays. In the States it’s famously found in a spreadable cookie butter form at Wafels and Dinges, a New York City company consisting of food trucks and sit-down locations specializing in Belgian waffles. The spread has since been broadened here in the last five years especially by health and specialty food markets, which sell the delicious spread as a very worthy (read: better) alternative to peanut butter and Nutella.
Now, the flavor’s introduction into the nationwide fast food lexicon by Steak ‘n Shake — it seems to have migrated to them from Chicago by way of Edzo’s Burger Shop’s famous off-menu Speculoos Shake — comes as both a relief and a godsend.
For far too long, the vague, nauseating pumpkin spice flavoring has ruled over the fall season as its go-to flavor. Autumn after autumn, the pumpkin flavor has been unjustifiably injected into more and more food, reaching an almost parodic level. The ubiquity of the flavoring has infiltrated everything we love, from beer and coffee to chips and cookies. And with its continually growing popularity, it has infiltrated fast food milkshakes; Dairy Queen, Arby’s, Burger King, Culver’s, Sonic Drive-In, Jack In the Box all have added to the sickening list of chains that have experimented with their own version of a pumpkin milkshake.
Meanwhile, the Speculoos flavor has just emerged as a slightly gingery respite from the uninspired banality of whatever abstract, artificial flavor “pumpkin spice” claims to be. Like the artificial origins of such made up flavors as “blue raspberry” and that fake “grape” that is nothing like real grapes but we nonetheless accept as grape flavor, most pumpkin flavored food substitutes what we recognize as nutmeg, clove and the other tastes we associate with pumpkin with synthetic copycats.
The backlash to pumpkin flavoring is, understandably, a fleshy, festering wound on the un-gutted face of a carved Halloween decoration, and I’m itching to pick at it. A year ago, John Oliver ranted about the absurdity of the regularly seasonal takeover of pumpkin spice, “Nobody wants anything pumpkin-flavored from December through August,” in a web exclusive clip for his HBO show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” Last week, comedian and actor Ben Schwartz visited GQ to taste test wild pumpkin-flavored variants of American snack foods — Mini Wheats, Oreos, whipped peanut butter, Peeps, M&Ms, marshmallows and gum — and disliked them all. Even Scene’s own Erin McAuliffe injected a pumpkin spice flavored putdown in a fall-themed playlist she built last week, her parenthetical “pls no PSL” a plea to stay away from the ever-present Pumpkin Spice Latte this fall season.
Steak ‘n Shake’s release of a Speculoos milkshake not only comes at the perfect time to suggest usurpation of the pumpkin spice flavor that has reigned as “Flavor of the Fall” for too long, but it also provides an absolutely good taste, as well. The flavoring, which can actually point back to real ingredients and an actual taste as its inspiration, matches the fall season itself: teasingly warm and sweet, with touches of brown sugar, butter and sometimes caramel, but at times stinging, when the notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cardamom come through.
In this sense, the flavor is not altogether different from the notions in pumpkin spice. However, Speculoos is much more natural and far less intrusive than the flavoring that resembles pumpkin only in name. Pumpkin spice flavoring is a fad, not a trend; it has reached its breaking point and a seriously strong opponent, now more than ever before, stands to rise in its wake.