WASHINGTON - Trick or treat! While youngsters dress up as ghosts and goblins and go door to door for Halloween, grown-ups across the United States are indulging in all things pumpkin spice.
What started a decade ago as a seasonal Starbucks coffee flavor - which curiously isn't made of pumpkin - has blossomed into something of an autumn American obsession.
Supermarket shelves are bursting with pumpkin spice cookies, chocolates, marshmallows, waffles, bagels, pasta, potato chips, Greek yogurt, hummus, granola and pudding, to name but a few.
Trader Joe's, a hip grocery chain, features "pumpkin-spiced pumpkin seeds" among its arm's length list of edible Halloween offerings.
Craft brewers are tapping into a growing market for limited-edition pumpkin-flavored beer. Bartenders mix pumpkin spice cocktails that might go nicely with a pumpkin spice e-cigarette.
"Now, everything from your morning coffee to salad mix has some type of pumpkin flavoring," food writer Samantha Bakall of the Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Oregon reported.
In a bit of investigative lifestyle journalism, Bakall set out to sample every pumpkin-flavored product she could find. She stopped after 26 items, leaving 17 more untested.
"I've heard of realtors using pumpkin spice candles when they are staging homes as a way to make prospective buyers feel more at home," added Karen Mishra, a marketing professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Mercifully, no one - at least, not yet - is marketing pumpkin spice tampons, after a convincing Photoshop image of a spoof pumpkin-scented Tampax box went viral online.
Dollars for pumpkins
Halloween is big business, with American consumers expected to drop $7.4 billion this year on costumes, decorations, candy and more, the National Retail Federation has said.
Some of those greenbacks will be spent on real pumpkins.
Last year US farmers grew 1.13 billion pumpkins, the Department of Agriculture says. Many if not most became jack-o-lanterns, lit on October 31, then dumped in the trash the next day.
For Americans, pumpkins are pregnant with symbolism, even if they've never been a dietary mainstay, said Cindy Ott, author of "Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon."
As more and more Americans moved into cities, the pumpkin came to be associated with the romance of nature and the virtues of country life, the St Louis University professor said.
"It's the meaning that people are celebrating," she told AFP. "There's no practical reason to put pumpkin spice in a cup of coffee or to put a pumpkin on your front stoop."
Starbucks is widely credited for launching the pumpkin spice craze with its Pumpkin Spice Latte, or PSL, concocted in 2003 in the "liquid lab" at its Seattle, Washington headquarters.