I just finished my fourth box of pumpkin spice Cheerios. Lately, I’ve been having a bowl for lunch. I will pick up more the next time I go to Safeway (see Safeway Saturday Nights). Judging from its reduced price ($2.59/box) and the desperate placement of boxes around the store, I think I’m safe. There won’t be a run on inventory.
That’s strange, because pumpkin spice Cheerios taste great and, as far as I can tell, are pretty healthy. I studied chemistry in college and learned that “natural” smells and flavors can be reproduced in the lab easily enough. But Cheerios are low in sugar and have a healthy percentage of vitamins and minerals. Sure, they’ve only got six grams of fiber and protein, but when you open the box a filet doesn’t fall out. It’s cereal.
You may have noticed that the world has gone pumpkin spice crazy. You can now find pumpkin spice in coffee, cereal, cookies, candy, chocolates, beverages, yogurt, soup, hair products, shower gel, lipstick, moisturizer, candles, deodorant, toys, pet treats, floor wax, workout gear, and–the pièce de résistance–Twinkies. Yes, Twinkies. What the execs at Hostess were thinking is anybody’s guess, but there seems to be a tendency within companies with iconic brands to do everything humanly possible to destroy those brands. If confronted with this act of lunacy, I suppose the execs could take the Twinkies defense. I am not a spiteful man, but I would make them take the pumpkin spice version of that defense.
It is now October and when we get to this time of year, I often think of one of my English teachers from high school. Mr. Andrade made an impression on me for his passion for language, his constant pushing us beyond our limits, and his wicked sense of humor.
One day in particular stands out. It, too, was in October, and we were reading the poem, “When the Frost is on the Punkin” by James Whitcomb Riley. Mr. Andrade asked me to recite the first stanza of the poem in class, which I was happy to do. I like to think he asked me, because I had acted in plays and knew how to project my voice. I was also a reader at church.
The high school was in southern New Jersey. My family moved there temporarily from New York before moving back again. But that meant my brothers, sister, and I spent some time in school there. Enter Mr. Andrade and the poem. I am telling you this, because the real story is not frost on the pumpkin, pumpkin spice lattes, or the poem itself, but the unexpected and, as it turned out, humorous encounter of cultures.
Riley is called the “Hoosier Poet” not just because he was born in Indiana but because the settings, phrasing, and cadence of his poems often reflect rural Indiana and farm life. I’ve been to Indiana, of course, and even gotten lost there (see Bloomington Blues #3), but my phrasing and cadence are all Staten Island. So, when I recited the poem, the inevitable head-on collision between Indiana cornfield and Staten Island San Gennaro festival was too much for Mr. Andrade to bear. To complicate matters, southern New Jersey is distinct linguistically from both Indiana and Staten Island. Mainly, they swallow their words, but that could just be me.
What I remember is that Mr. Andrade laughed so hard he cried, doubled over, and choked. Then he turned as red as a cardinal’s zucchetto. Not sure what was going on, I slowly came to a halt, the class stared in amazement, and we waited until he calmed down. I can’t be certain, but the poor man may have had to use the men’s room.
So, dear reader, you’re in for a treat. Get your pumpkin spice latte ready, sit back, and prepare to relive the experience of Riley’s frosted “punkin,” which I recite below. Of course, my voice isn’t what it used to be in high school, but you may still hear a bit of Richard Feynman and the Bowery Boys in there somewhere. Unlike Twinkies, some things never change.
"When the Frost is on the Punkin," (1911) by James Whitcomb Riley When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock, And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock, And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens, And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence; O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best, With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest, As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock, When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock. They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here— Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees, And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees; But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock— When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.
Image credits: feature by Alexey Savchenko; Cheerios by PublicDomainPictures; coffee by Colin FitzGerald; “all things nice” by Sincerely Media. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. This post is dedicated to Mr. Andrade, English teacher extraordinaire at Southern Regional High School, Manahawkin, New Jersey. Happy birthday, Bobby Bronco!