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  • Writer's pictureSarah Johnson

Sriracha Spice Latte

I just had the chicken nuggets at Chick-fil-A, with Sriracha dipping sauce instead of barbeque. It was a no-brainer for me—I’ve got a bottle of Sriracha in my fridge right now. (I don’t even have a bottle of ketchup.) It seems like this sweet, spicy sauce is everywhere nowadays. I almost bought a Sriracha t-shirt at Walmart, but they didn’t have any in my size.

So hot right now.

Across the street from the Chick-fil-A is a Starbucks, where another major flavor has appeared. It’s Labor Day weekend, and Starbucks is rolling out its contribution to the pumpkin spice-flavored everything that will be found in stores and restaurants for the next few months. This annual trend is greeted with either enthusiasm or eye-rolling, depending on whom you ask. But pumpkin spice has a different reputation than Sriracha does. On a basic level, it’s easy to see why the red sauce is more intriguing to a certain American audience. Sriracha has an exotic origin, even if it is made in California. And people can sympathize with the rags-to-riches story of the sauce’s inventor. Therefore Sriracha has a uniqueness and authenticity that pumpkin spice seems to lack.

Pumpkin spice’s most recognizable delivery system, the pumpkin spice latte (PSL), celebrates its crystal anniversary in 2018—for fifteen years the PSL has been making its autumn appearance. One of the strangest things about this flavor, though, is its actual taste. It’s made from a mix of spices that tend to occur in pumpkin pie: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg. That is, no actual pumpkin. You could just as easily call this flavor “apple spice,” after the seasonings that go into apple pie.

Yeah, kinda tastes like nothing.

Pumpkin spice is also a flavor profile with a bad name, at least in certain circles. It’s widely associated with the stereotype of the banal, clueless white girl, who lacks the imagination to desire any flavor other than the most popular and easily digestible. It is a flavor cliché. This is why the popularity of Sriracha sauce will ultimately work against it—nobody wants to be like everyone else. This effect might even be accelerated in Sriracha’s case, because the sauce is sold year-round. It doesn’t benefit from the forced scarcity of a seasonal appearance. The problem with pumpkin spice has become Sriracha’s problem.

It’s been pretty easy for Sriracha to spread to different foods and products, further increasing its fame (and its saturation of the national taste). The sauce’s creator did not patent the name Sriracha, but only the design of the bottle. This oversight makes it easier for multiple companies to create their own versions of the sauce, without having to change its name. Businesses like Frito-Lay and Subway (and Chick-fil-A!) use the name on their menus freely. And other companies’ Sriracha t-shirts, keychains, and so on make it possible to partake in Sriracha without even eating it.

Like pumpkin spice, Sriracha has even acquired its own stereotypical consumer. Sriracha has been called “hipster ketchup.” In contrast to the PSL-buyer’s conformity, the stereotypical hipster fetishizes uniqueness. Though it’s hard to argue that Sriracha can offer this, I’ll hardly quit buying it. Sriracha really does go well on chicken nuggets.

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