The Discerning Food Critic reviews The Pumpkin Spice Latte

The summer was warm and full of life. 10,000 years ago, the long days and warm weather pushed my ancestors to range far from their homes. Their instincts linger in me still so I took your soft hand in mine and we went adventuring. From the fertile river valleys of Northern California to the stoney coast of New England, we wandered and wondered.

But now the season is changing. The air is cooling and the days are getting shorter.

In the modern American tradition of corporate season change, Starbucks has dropped the Pumpkin Spice Latte on us once again.

The Discerning Food Critic Presents:

The Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Early in the morning, I enter my regular Starbucks in Union Square. The ambiance is familiar and comfortable. Decor is unobjectionable. My barista is named Michael. He is round and sleepy looking and he doesn't judge me for failing to order in Italian.  I shuffle to the end of the bar and stand in queue. The line moves slowly but the time passes quickly. Soon I hear my name and elbow my way through the crowd.

The cardboard cup is warm in my hands and I can smell welcoming notes of clove and nutmeg wafting up from the cup's sippy hole. "Come closer," it whispers to me, "I taste like a pie."

I am a child now. I am back in Massachusetts, looking down at myself from above. I am in the grape arbor behind my childhood home, and my father is there. The grapes are plump and purple, ready for picking. I am holding a tin bucket for the old man, into which he is effortlessly and accurately tossing the ripest clusters that he pulls from the highest vines. "There are some good ones around the bottom too," he tells me, "you get those". But I don't want those grapes. I want the big shiny ones that he has. I stand on my tiptoes and strain to reach them. He laughs as I whimper, then he grabs a vine in his big strong hands and pulls it down, lowering it to within my reach. And as the tangled flora gives way to his strength, a rich stream of golden sunlight breaks through the space he has created in the canopy. It illuminates countless motes of dust that had been dancing in the shadows. And in that very moment

I can taste that golden sunbeam in the first scalding sip of the season. It burns my tongue a moment and I recoil, but not without that first precious taste. The burn passes and the flavor notes open up on my tongue.

I am 18 years old. It is the last day of summer camp. The other counselors and I are singing the camp song one more time as a big yellow school bus loads up the children and prepares to ferry them back to mundanity. Last night at the campfire, she and I broke up. She leaves for college next week. She wants to be free; she wants to stay friends. I had never been dumped before. A gaggle of Canadian geese passes overhead and

I can taste their clumsy trumpeting as I take another sip. It has cooled now, enough to savor the delicate notes of rich maple behind the bolder cinnamon. I linger on it for a moment, engaging the velvety texture by tumbling a half sip around my mouth. The bouquet continues to open even after I swallow and I realize I have to go. This is a drink that wants to be taken for a walk. A cold burst of air rushes at my face as I swing the door open.

I see you. You are just a little girl, years and miles away, at home in Bolivia. You have gone to the Estadio with your brother to watch the Llama races. You hold your breath in girlish anticipation as the brave Llamaero's race around the track, clutching the wooly manes of their mounts as they clear the rocky hurdles and prepare to leap the alligator pit. Your father has gone into the mountains to hunt for Puma, and tonight you will have a delicious feast. Your stomach rumbles in anticipation, hoping that maybe tonight you will get the tail. Your brother must have heard it, as he hands you a skewer of roasted parrot meat and yams . You fumble with a greasy meat chunk and it nearly falls from your small hand as Bolivio Martinez-- hero of La Paz-- spurs his steed faster and faster toward the dreaded moat and the waiting maw of a blood-hungry gator and

It occurs to me that I need to read up on Bolivian culture before we visit your homeland. It also occurs to me that The Pumpkin Spice Latte may just be a beverage best enjoyed in a bookstore. There is one nearby.

It is quiet on Van Ness avenue. The streets are sleepy on the holiday weekend. The wind blows hard between the tall buildings and it nearly takes my hat off my head. I pull the brim low over my eyes and I hold my hand straight out at my side so that I can feel the wind whipping through my splayed fingers. It is cold and refreshing.

Years have passed. And decades. It is the autumn of our life. My hands are stiff and knotted. You scold me lovingly for not wearing my mittens. I am launching a little rowboat into the lake behind our home. Maybe it is Winnipesaukee, maybe it is Titicaca. I can't tell from here. But I can tell that you are every bit as beautiful as ever. I can remember moments that haven't happened yet. I can remember yet unnamed generations. I can remember loving you for my whole life. I think back to that day on Van Ness avenue, when I remembered this day years from then and now. The thought makes me feel light headed. I try to shake it off and I reach for the oar to stroke us out further from shore, but my hands won't grip. You spot the strain on my face. I can smell snow on the air. Winter will come soon. "Baby?" You say, "Put your mittens on." I open my mouth to speak,

I take one more sip. As I savor the last tepid drops I can taste a tightness in my chest, a darkness on the horizon.

Presentation is strong, as Michael shaped a small leaf in the foam of my latte. It was a benign touch, if not a bit futile. Moments later I sealed it off and gleefully desecrated his petit objet d'art. Still, the Discerning Food Critic appreciates such touches. My drinking experience was slightly diminished by a weird gap between the paper cup and plastic cap which I couldn't seem to find no matter what I did, resulting in frequent minor spillage on my hand.

Final grade: 93 Stars (Out of 100)

Bolivio Martinez, Hero of La Paz.