Election, coronavirus, quarantine — it’s hard to dial back the anxiety, step outside and remember the leaves are changing color. It’s fall, also known as my favorite time of year, when we get to wear ugly knit sweaters, and it’s still early enough to not stress about New Year’s resolutions. Halloween provides another excuse for insane costumes. And oh yes: pumpkins.
As with many obsessions, all roads lead to mom. She invites a pack of people every Thanksgiving, and the dessert table inevitably piles up with at least 10 competing pies. My canned pumpkin confection with Trader Joe’s crust never quite made the cut, so one year I upped my game: a locally-sourced Cinderella pumpkin from Half Moon Bay in a homemade crust, with tips from trusty Martha Stewart.
Little did I know the carnival fun-land that awaited me up the coast. Arata’s Pumpkin Farm has hay rides, a petting zoo, a haunted house, and the biggest hay bale maze I’ve ever seen. The road trip that began with just me now shuttles 15 or more urbanites for a day of festivities that include stops in Pacifica for breakfast and board games at Chit Chat Café, and again on the way home to swing by a world-famous Taco Bell.
The trip felt much the same this year, even with coronavirus and every other distraction currently pulling at our attention. Chit Chat Café had the same five-piece band that typically plays for a venue made to seat 20 people, at most. I felt grateful to maybe skip them this year, but there they were in the parking lot, playing tunes to people in lawn chairs while the café blasted their music through speakers indoors.
Arata’s, too, was much the same even though they’d promised distancing measures. Before a testy letter arrives in my email: I did note a few precautions they’d taken, but the farm still felt pretty packed, even with those measures in place. And once again, ugh, I missed the Minotaur! Every time I come, he’s on a smoke break or something. I want the little golden pumpkins he’s been handing out the seven years I’ve gone.
I wasn’t kidding about the Taco Bell; it really is renowned because it’s actually on the beach. To this day, I take dates there and say, “Order anything on the menu, it’s on me.” Albeit, a couple years ago the fast food spot did a full remodel and added booze, a fireplace, self-checkout kiosks and a DJ, which you think could be great but doesn’t really work. “All right Taco Bell let’s get this party staaaarrted!” he shouted into a microphone last year. I felt like I was back at my bar mitzvah.
My life this year has, many days, been little more than anxiety wrapped in fear, coated in anger. Attempts at normal activities are just that: attempts. Socially distant patios, drive-in movies, “hiking” dates, Zoom calls — all these activities carry a sort of hollow quality that lack that sated feeling, like diet root beer or a polyester suit.
The day of pumpkins was perhaps the most normal, and warm inside, I’ve felt all year, maybe because it had been so long since I had seen these friends, or maybe because the trip is so beautiful.
One day soon, I really want to do a “meet your mixologist” interview with one of the Taco Bell cashiers, just for fun. Even though it’s pre-made, it’s no joke that their slushie sangria is actually quite delicious. Today, however, I’ll leave you with an elaborate pumpkin spice cocktail I picked up from various recipes over the years. This really is one of my best-received cocktails I’ve ever made, made with a pumpkin-infused liqueur.
Homemade Pumpkin Pie Liqueur
• 1 cup water
• 1 cup sugar
• 3/4 cup vodka
• 4 cinnamon sticks
• 1 whole clove
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
• 4 tablespoons fresh pumpkin puree
Directions: Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan until boiling, then reduce to a simmer. Add in cinnamon sticks, clove, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla and pumpkin puree. Stir and heat for about 10 minutes, then remove from heat and cool for 15 minutes. Add vodka once cooled. Bottle the mixture and store it in a cool, dark place for a few days and up to three months. Strain the mixture into a new bottle for serving.
Sugar ‘N’ Pumpkin Spice Cocktail
• 3 shots apple cider
• 2 shots homemade pumpkin liqueur
• 1 1/2 shots Meyer lemon juice
Directions: Run a lemon wedge along the rim of a cocktail glass, dip the glass in brown sugar, and fill the glass with ice. Combine all ingredients into a cocktail shaker and shake thoroughly, pour into the glass and serve.
Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.