Bring Back the Cloves: The De-spicing of Regional Pumpkin Pies



It’s that time of the year when the annual Cincinnati PPWs start.   That’s the pumpkin pie wars between local producers, Frisch’s and Busken.   Since 2010, they’ve taunted each other via billboards, contesting which pie is most popular regionally.     They even made national news with a Wall Street Journal article.   Busken employees defaced the Frisch’s Big Boy statue outside the flagship Frisch’s Mainliner restaurant in Mariemont with a Busken apron. That was after Frisch’s bought a defaming ad on the billboard on the Madison Avenue wall of the Busken flagship bakery in Hyde Park.   It’s all in good fun, both companies say, but the rivalry is serious among local pumpkin pie aficionados.

Two of the defaming billboards between Busken and Frisch’s.


From a business standpoint, the PPW (pumpkin pie war) is no joke.   Frisch’s typically sells 90,000 pies during their 16 week season, and Busken typically sells 2500.  Both saw upticks in sales of 5% and 25% respectively after the initial PPW in 2010.


In addition to pumpkin pie, the PSL or pumpkin spice latte is everywhere from Starbucks to your local gas station.   There are pumpkin spice cookies at Subway, and pumpkin cream pies at McDonald’s.   Unfortunately they all are diluting the strong spices that those of us who love the traditional pumpkin pie are used to.     Fast food producers have been challenged by the Fresh Revolution. Any way to remove cost out of their offerings, even Limited Time Offerings, like pumpkin pie spiced varieties, is a must to retain profits in a more competitive food takeout environment.


My grandfather’s bakery pumpkin pie is considered the gold standard in our family.   Grandpa’s blend, developed in the late 1940s, spiced his pumpkin pie strong, but balanced.   He used a balanced blend of cinnamon, mace (the outer shell of the nutmeg, for a stronger flavor) and cloves.     The pie was a darker brownish-orange than the typical bright dayglow orange of most of today’s pumpkin pies.  It had a smooth, non-gritty, non-mealy, but not custardy texture.   It was not too sweet, and you could taste the pumpkin.   It seems like most commercial pumpkin pies are now hued to resemble the light orange of a sweet potato pie rather than a traditional pumpkin pie.   There’s even some that add bourbon or caramel for differentiation.   But those are both travesties to the traditional and delicious pumpkin pie.


My father has long been a pumpkin pie aficionado.   He’s an October Libran like myself, so pumpkin pie is almost like his birthday cake.   Even at 75, he’s a super taster, and can detect any imbalance in the spice blend of any pumpkin pie. Dad takes his pumpkin pie seriously.   He considered Grandpa’s pie the gold standard.   But, until recently Dad thought Frisch’s was a very close second.   After a recent conversation, Dad told me he thinks that Frisch’s has changed their formula.


“They’ve backed off on the spice blend!”   Dad said, with as much importance as if the Fed had just raised interest rates.   Like other second class quality pumpkin pies, Dad says there’s too much a prevalence of cinnamon, and not enough mace/nutmeg and cloves.   Dad also says that most pumpkin pies are too sweet, and you can barely taste the pumpkin as a result.   His now favorite commercially available pumpkin pie is surprisingly, from Costco.   He believes they have not backed off on the traditional spice blend.


Is this de-spicing of pumpkin pie an evolution of current tastes?   Do Millennials prefer cinnamon over the stronger spices of nutmeg and cloves?   Why is this de-spicing not causing a revolution locally amongst traditional pumpkin pie aficionados?  And what’s causing pumpkin pie manufacturers from backing off on their spice blends?   Are they really reacting to evolving tastes or is it something else?


A typical blend of pumpkin pie spices includes ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.   The ratio of cinnamon to the others is typically higher. The agreed upon blend per pie is usually a 3:2:2:1.5:1.5 teaspoon ratio of cinnamon to ginger to nutmeg to cloves to allspice.     It just so happens that cloves is the fourth most expensive spice in the world, behind saffron, vanilla and cardamom.   Mace and cinnamon fall behind cloves.   So, it’s a cost cutting measure for large producers to remove the most expensive and strongest spice, cloves.     Remove cloves from the above ratio, and the already dominant cinnamon takes an even stronger role in the taste of the pie and throws off the balance. It’s kind of like the trash bag commercial – wimpy-wimpy-wimpy (with cinnamon), vs. hefty-hefty-hefty, with cloves.


Ask Johnny Johnson at Camp Washington Chili, or Spiro Sarakatsannis of Dixie Chili about spice blend balance.     They contend with a Cincinnati chili spice blend of 14 sweet, spicy, and herby spices.  Take any one of the 14 out of Cincinnati chili out and you’ll taste it.   The blend has been developed and balanced for almost 100 years.     When I got the rare privilege of going into the Dixie Chili locked spice room, Spiro told me he is constantly having to reformulate his spice blend when his suppliers change the concentration of their spices in oil or whatever carrying agent in which they’re supplied.     He has to make sure the ratio stays the same, so the flavor balance isn’t compromised.


People are so used to the Cincinnati chili spice blend that when Gold Star reformulated their chili a few years ago, it was noticed!     Pumpkin pie spices are a subset of the 14 spices of Cincinnati Chili, in what are called the Sweet Apostoulos (Sweet Apostles).   There’s also a group of Spicy, and Herby Apostoulos, along with the Holy Trinity, in the Cincinnati chili blend.


I’m in Dad’s camp on this one – and we don’t always agree politically.    Bring back the cloves!   End the de-spicing of American Pumpkin Pie!!


2 thoughts on “Bring Back the Cloves: The De-spicing of Regional Pumpkin Pies

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