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Plat du Jour: October 18, 2012: Why So Many People Have APO (Autumnal Pumpkin Obsession), St. Louis vs San Francisco, and Much More

It’s the middle of October, with Halloween just around the bend, and believe it or not, the “Christmas” of the food world (Thanksgiving) is barely a month away. This can only mean one thing (besides that the sunlight these days is noticeably shorter): APO.

Say what?

Chances are you have it, or if you are not part of the majority, then you certainly know somebody close to you who has APO. No, APO is not a bad thing unless you spend too much time at Starbucks or Cheesecake Factory. Then again, too many lattes or cheesecake slices have never been a recommended lifestyle choice, regardless of the flavor or time of year.

APO is everywhere at this time of year: in your coffee, your ice cream, your pasta, your beer, your morning granola, your roasted duck’s sauce. Who knows? It may be the next big thing for that other main part of this time of year: the wine harvest.

APO is our new term to describe “Autumnal Pumpkin Obsession,” a case where between late September and Thanksgiving the public becomes chronically hooked on everything edible and drinkable with pumpkin somehow involved. It is not necessarily a negative obsession to have. Pumpkin is brilliant in many ways. It can thrive when used as a ravioli or agnolotti filling, lightly sauced with brown butter. Pumpkin beers can be terrific (the pick from yours truly would be the bold, cinnamon heavy Punk’n from Salt Lake City’s Uinta Brewing Co.). When I used to live in Southern California, I waited all year for a certain bakery’s pumpkin chocolate chip muffins and for a loaf (or four) of the pumpkin bread baked by the nuns of Hollywood’s Monastery of the Angels (here’s the recipe). Not all pumpkin spiced lattes taste like syrup…a visit to Urth in Los Angeles proves that.

Even pumpkin cocktails can succeed. One of the most charming and grown up craft cocktail spots in San Francisco right now is proving this. Two Sisters Bar & Books crafts a terrific Manhattan variation with Cynar and Punt e Mes as their house cocktail. Now, they’re stirring up a “Harvest Manhattan” with pumpkin liqueur joining the rye and sweet vermouth.

Uinta’s Punk’n Ale

And then there’s my two personal favorite uses of pumpkin. Pumpkin ice cream (best version I’ve ever had would be the one at Cornell University’s Dairy Bar in Ithaca, NY) and pumpkin pie ice cream (it is what it sounds like, served at the Berkey Creamery at Penn State University in State College, PA). In both, the cloves and cinnamon shine brilliantly. In the latter, yes, chunks of crust are as critical to its success as cookie dough in chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.

The other recommendation with pumpkin? Of course, Libby’s pumpkin pie filling, straight from the can. Seriously, like with Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, going the artisanal or DIY route isn’t always best. With pumpkin pie, make the crust. Go for the canned, artificial filling.

But, at the same time there are just as many, if not more, uses of pumpkin here in Autumn that warrant penalty flags. Some pumpkin beers are nightmares. Don’t get me started on the pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks. Today I sampled a pumpkin flavored frozen yogurt, no need to re-visit it. Pumpkin soup? Babies would complain about that baby food oftentimes. Pumpkin cocktails? If you don’t mind artificial syrups, then why not? Most pumpkin breads often taste of nothing; they simply have orange coloring.

As a Southern California food writer, I once wrote an entire October issue on apples and apple picking. I also once wrote a pumpkin heavy Autumn foods issue. For that research, I brought a group of friends with APO to a trattoria known for pumpkin tortellini served in actual pumpkin, only to learn that by 8:30 pm they already had completely sold out of the beyond popular dish in October.

We’re talking about pumpkins here. Pumpkins aren’t exactly a sexy food like juicy fruit nor do they represent glorious sunny days like tomatoes. Why do we love pumpkins? After all, pumpkins are scary when in Jack-O-Lantern form.

Pumpkins can be divided into two worlds: the spice, evoked in the ice creams and beverages mentioned earlier, versus the squash.

After all, pumpkin is a squash. Yes, squash. Rarely do eyes light up at the notion of squash. There is no ASO.

We don’t go overboard with Douglas Fir in December or eggs in April, even though Christmas trees represent that season and Easter eggs in April, much like pumpkins for October. Pumpkins warm us up when we need warming up as summer leaves us and the leaves fall prior to winter’s chilly arrival. There is something about the subtle spicing in pumpkins: some cinnamon, some clove, a pinch of allspice, a dash of nutmeg. In the right proportions, pumpkin’s flavor is mystical.

Just imagine how delicious that pumpkin pie would be if made from the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Charlie probably even has APO, but you can’t see him having the pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks, can you?

Continuing on this October Thursday, what else is in season at the Farmer’s Market? Tomatoes  and corn last weekend had their final hurrah in town. Meanwhile, root vegetables are heading in, but it’s hard to get excited for kale salad and parsnip soup.

My notes mostly involved the beautiful shishito peppers, as green as the hills of Austria, with one out of a hundred of them “dangerously” spicy. I’ve yet to find that “one.” Squash, of course, anchored many stands in various shapes and sizes. Yes, it’s October, bring on the apples too.

Jujube in the center. By size comparison, a fig to the right and a pear to the left.

Lastly, jujubes. No, not the gummy fruit candy. The fig sized fruits often are chestnut colored and mostly round. The flesh is not soft, often a little tense. Jujubes are known as “Chinese dates,” yet possess very little in the way of a date’s sweetness or gumminess. Ripe jujubes have a touch of moistness to the center. Unripe jujubes are dreadfully dry and boring. You can eat them plain, make them into jams or butters, and of course, into candies.

Last weekend was the grand fraternity fest in Denver, known as the Great American Beer Festival. Congratulations to all the winners in the 84 (!) categories from German-style Alt Bier to Smoke Beer to Gluten-free Beer.

Finally, it’s always fun to have the mayors of competing cities place ” food wagers” on sporting events. This week the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals face each other in the National League Championship Series. Two cities with great baseball histories and culinary histories, what do mayors Ed Lee (San Francisco) and Francis Slay (St. Louis) wager? Interesting side note, yours truly has been to St. Louis, a few years ago, and it happened to be with the Giants.

If the Giants (come back) and win the series, Lee receives toasted ravioli, St. Louis barbeque, and Budweiser from St. Louis.

If the Cardinals win the series, Slay receives from San Francisco some Anchor Steam and dim sum.

Better deal? St. Louis would receive the better brew. It’s a toss up for the food, with toasted ravioli worth skipping. But dim sum from Yank Sing or barbeque from Pappy’s Smokehouse? That’s a coin flip.

If I were mayors of both cities…

St. Louis receives: Yank Sing’s dim sum, Pacific Brewing Lab’s Hibiscus Saison, Bi-Rite Creamery’s salted caramel ice cream, carnitas and corn tortillas from Nopalito, Flour + Water’s pasta tasting menu, Four Barrel’s coffee, and plenty of Dungeness crab from Swan Oyster Depot. Let’s throw in some Napa and Sonoma wines too, along with a few heads of Little Gem lettuce, Hog Island oysters, and Niman Ranch meat too.

O.K., Anchor has the history and best represents the city, but this saison is currently the most interesting beer being brewed in the city. And it’s very representative of the city’s small batch artisan culture too. We can debate forever about the best coffee and Mexican food in San Francisco. These are my picks after extensive tastings. We can all agree, St. Louis would love both of these.

San Francisco receives: Pappy’s pork ribs, brews from Schlafly, Ted Drewes’ concretes, Gus’s pretzels, any dessert from Niche, pizza from Pi, and an assortment from “The Hill.”

Gus’ Pretzels, St. Louis

I’m no St. Louis dining expert, so I’d love to hear what residents would choose. We have nothing in the Bay Area even close to Pappy’s or the famed Ted Drewes. Nor do we even have pretzels to compete with Gus’, especially at the price (sub $1). The $5 soft pretzel at St. Vincent in San Francisco is the closest the city has. I adored everything at Niche with the desserts making me want to open a west coast outpost of Niche. And forget the toasted ravioli. Mayor Lee would love some sandwiches and cannolis from Amighetti’s and Adriana’s.

Busch Stadium, St. Louis

On that note, go Giants!

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