Do cows like eating pumpkins?

Ted didn’t have first-hand experience with being a farming rancher. Or a ranching farmer. But those who came before found letting cows in the patch had its uses. Doing so gives livestock extra crude protein, for example, because indeed cows do like pumpkins, and since pumpkins are about 80 percent water, the practice cuts down on how often troughs have to be filled. The downside of feeding pumpkins to cows, of course, is that it flavors the dairy. Which is what Dr. Alethea was counting on.

And it worked!

After six months of munching on pumpkins, along with a lot of experimentation concerning feeding schedules, watering schedules, playing with temperature and humidity levels inside the barns, adjusting intake of other foodstuffs—including ginger, which is relatively easy to grow in North America, and other New World flavorings like cacao—the cows produced milk that tasted of pumpkin spice. “My crowning achievement!” Dr. Alethea exclaimed, and truly it was, with the lattes that came from the spiced milk indistinguishable from how they tasted pre-apocalypse. And all made through inarguably natural means. So that was done, and as the days waned in length, the crew enjoyed their warm drinks while staying busy, transporting all of the beautiful, bright orange squashes they’d grown into the ranch’s silos for storage, or working on the greenhouses they’d constructed, in which sat hundreds of coffee seedlings.

Though perhaps the most impressive of their endeavors were the industrial roasters Brooke made, who’d been an engineer in her past life. Now there was a drum in each of the secondary milking vats, hooked to motors and industrial fans that blew off the bean chaff. Though with all that said, what Dr. Alethea was most excited about was what they’d constructed next door.

“Pasteurization,” Ted had explained, “is the process of heating milk to just below the boiling point for a small amount of time.” If milk was Ted’s wheelhouse, then pasteurization was his wheel. It was a necessary process for several reasons, though at first Brooke and Kevin were having none of it.

“If done right, the taste hardly changes.”

The pair again were quiet, their anxieties about foods “unnaturally” processed in any way on full display.

“It increases the shelf life of milk from days to weeks.”

From far off, you could hear the cows moo.

“Because pasteurization eradicates over 99.9% of all milk pathogens.” And then, for good measure: “Which means it stops the spread of disease.”

That got them immediately, which was good; Dr. Alethea still believed that how foods were treated, added to, or handled had nothing to do with the pandemic. Though, more importantly, nothing could bring out the aroma of pumpkin spice better than a nice bit of vaporization. So they opened up the pipes used in the process, and they let the pasteurizing go on slightly longer than necessary. All in the name of safety, of course. And the smell of fresh pumpkin spice latte permeating the state for miles on end! Though more notable than the aroma was the steady stream of survivors that came flowing in after.

And that’s how they got the Midwest back on track.


Ted’s land really was the ideal place to start a city; an eight-bedroom homestead with six smaller houses out back, plus two bunkhouses, three barns, an old school, a stocked shop, a tool shed, multiple pumps and silos and other miscellaneous buildings, wiring and electrical generators, wells for fresh water, gas and diesel fuel tanks, sanitation equipment, a scrapyard and dump, tractors and other heavy machinery, a very handy man, close proximity to a major thoroughfare in an area where the sound of far-away vehicles could travel well, and of course, not just cattle, but acres and acres of fertile ground just perfect for grazing and for growing hay and other crops.

What more could you possibly want?

Well, perhaps a way to attract the sullen and traumatized, of course, which was truly the crux of the matter.

When Dr. Alethea first saw Ted, it was love. Or, at least Dr. Alethea presumed that’s what she felt, as she had never been in love before. But Ted was kind. Humble. Salt of the earth. Dr. Alethea moved in with no ulterior motives and was happy, except when she thought of the boy in the wrecked car that she couldn’t save. Which caused her to consider why she became passionate about spices in first place, and caused her to consider the associations she’d made with different aromas when young.

The scent of freshly ground pepper on eggs her grandmother made every day before school; it was safety.

Dried rosemary and sage on Saturdays with her grandfather at the local pizzeria; that was routine.

Tarragon on chicken and thyme on rice after weekly services with the congregation that took her in and made her family: the smell of love.

And coffee, flavored with pumpkin spice, on a rainy December day; the overwhelming and unforgettable aroma in the Cadillac stopped on the narrow shoulder, owned by a woman who made her way down the side of the hill and through the water-soaked underbrush to get to an overturned car and pull a little girl out of a wreck. The woman went up the hill, opened one of the Caddy’s back doors, and thrust the girl into the dry warmth, then ran back down and worked frantically, but ultimately in vain, to save the driver of the car and his wife. Honestly, Dr. Alethea remembered few things about the night except for the scent of the brew in the car, which she’d never smelled before and which wouldn’t become popular for many decades to come. But it stayed with her, with her wanting it, needing it, from that moment on, because tastes and smells can be funny that way, which is why Dr. Alethea believed pumpkin spice could be the key to solving the world’s issues. It was a blow to later find that coffee’s bitter fragrance was highly volatile. But wouldn’t you know that pumpkin spice increases the stability of coffee aromatics five-fold?

And though pumpkin spice was hard to come by, and though survivors wouldn’t tolerate anything “fake,” then along came Ted, his land, and his cows?

Whether or not her entire history was fate, leading up to her post-apocalypse role, Dr. Alethea was not sure.

But she had decided early on to make the most of it all.


Dr. Alethea lived to see all her goals come true. Then she died at the ripe old age of 96.

Not bad for surviving the apocalypse.

Ted died two years later, age identical, and directly after helping celebrate their city’s 25th inaugural anniversary. The celebration made Ted think of the good old days: when they filled up the last of the six small houses out back, when they had to start adding third-level beds in the bunkhouses, when they converted the unused barn, when he and Dr. Alethea started moving people into their hallways and attic. There was also the craziness that came with creating a large-scale septic system, planting brand new crops, building new schoolhouses, and then whole new houses, and passing milestones like a hundred people, a thousand people, and various multiples thereof after. Or the constant and desperate search for more coffee beans in every grocery store and distribution center they could locate, eventually leaving Iowa, then Nebraska, for Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri, and clearing wrecks off roads and stringing power and telephone lines as they went.

And my, how tall and full their coffee plants were now!

Survivors usually eyed the ranch from a distance. After being spotted, all were approached with an outstretched arm, mug in hand. Dr. Alethea didn’t have a degree in sociology, but she was wise to advise talking as little as possible. And with nothing asked of them, the newcomers stayed for a second latte, or second cup of Joe, or cappuccino, or whatever else they wanted—Ted had certainly found enough percolators, espresso machines, French presses, and moka pots, and there was always cold brew—to get the drink that the survivor pre-apocalypse liked best. Though with all said, most wanted a pumpkin spice latte because it’s what had brought them in.

At the third cup survivors were told, almost as an aside, that there was an open room with a warm bed next to a bathroom with indoor plumbing.

They stayed the night.

And nearly always, they never left.

And Ted smiled.

He didn’t ever look that happy after Dr. Alethea died. She was his best friend, his only wife, and his confidant. They didn’t have any children, but Brooke and Kevin’s were practically their own, and they had so many friends and neighbors. Ted missed Dr. Alethea badly, with his heart hurting in a way that he could never have imagined and his mornings too quiet and his bed too big and cold. Yet he knew he had to stay on for just a bit, carrying on the same routine.

Wake up.

Drink coffee.

Tend to the cows.

Visit the lab, where he was reminded of her the most.

That was life for two years, until Ted got the news that made him outright grin. With it, he knew that the future would positively work out fine for everyone. And so just a few days after the 25th inaugural anniversary, he let go.

They found Ted in bed, eyes shut, and as cold as a rock. But the grin was still on his face.


The morning directly after Ted’s passing was strange.

The latte crew ran their normal routine, first bringing in the cows and milking them. Then, as the pasteurizers warmed, they ground the beans they had roasted the night before and made espresso. They pasteurized the milk, added it to the espresso, steamed, and voilà! A city’s worth of pumpkin spice latte.

Except this morning, the lattes came out plain.

Their drink! More important than tea in England, yerba mate in Argentina, or kumis in Mongolia. Pumpkin spice lattes were their identity, and what they proudly made from entirely organic ingredients and through entirely natural means!

Or so they thought, on all counts.

So the news was the city’s first colony, founded near what used to be St. Louis, had given up on pumpkins. Or more specifically, it had given up on feeding pumpkins to the cows. The milk was only coming out with a mild squash flavor, so after a frustrating few months, the drink that had been written into the city charter was thrown out with a simple voice-vote. The pumpkins could be used for better things anyway, like being baked into bread. And sure, they’d still abide by other societal tenets—they’d come out of the apocalypse a strong and close society, and even if another disease spread, they wouldn’t let social media make them nuts—but all of energy spent for just a silly drink wasn’t worth it.

So they simply gave up on it.

Back at what was still known as “the homestead,” most people thought it was the colonists who were nuts. They revered the smell that brought them in and gave them community, and they tried to imagine what life would be like without their morning ritual. Except for Ted, who thought of the first time he did a different ritual, which now he’d be giving up.

“Here we go! Get ready!” Dr. Alethea cheered as Ted mixed acetaldehyde and benzaldehyde into the acetone bath.

“Hooray,” said Ted, though without much enthusiasm; the tubs they were using were heavy.

“Delicious, right?”

And soon the lab smelled of fresh rolls and eggnog because they had succeeded in synthesizing cinnamaldehyde.

“Yes,” Ted said, and licked his lips. “It really is.”

Next, they would synthesize eugenol, the compound that gave both cloves and allspice their distinctive flavors, and after that the terpenes needed to evoke nutmeg. And later, they figured out sabinene as well.

And later, it wasn’t hard to dump the flavor compound into the vats, even after the homestead had grown significantly. The workers gave him his space each morning, with everyone assuming Ted prayed, or meditated, or did something mystical with his time alone by the pasteurizers. Though really, all Ted did was make sure no one was looking. Then the contents of a flask, carried in one of his flannel’s breast pockets, went right into the milk. The sterilizing heat activated the loveliest of pumpkin spice aromas, and that was all there was to making pumpkin spice lattes in a post-apocalypse Iowa.


Right after the colonists left the homestead, Ted had begun working on his headstone.

Their headstone.

He took a pre-cut piece of white granite, thick, with wide arches at the top, from a mortuary along with a set of carving tools. And as he worked in words and numbers, he thought back.

To a time when Dr. Alethea had gotten so excited in the lab that she’d thrown her latte straight into the air. She’d found she could synthesize vanillin, used for butter and maple notes in their pumpkin spice, from cellulose. Ted would no longer have to run their backyard cracking operation; instead of crude, taken from a refinery in South Dakota, all they needed now were wood chips for making imitation vanilla flavoring.

As they hugged, coffee dripped down from the ceiling.

Or better yet, Ted thought of before, when Dr. Alethea gave him the biggest compliment of his life. She’d told him she’d like to jumpstart society. They’d need something to entice the masses, and pumpkin spice flavoring should do it, though would anyone stay once they realized they used artificial means? She couldn’t get around the problem. Then Ted said they should just make a show of giving pumpkins to cows, because if survivors were as comforted by the spice as Dr. Alethea predicted, they’d hardly ask questions, right?

Dr. Alethea thought for several seconds.

Then called Ted a genius.

No one had ever called Ted smart before, and he had to leave the room because his eyes were getting misty.

Now fast forward to the inauguration, the colony, the news. Society was stable, and in fact was expanding. There was proof people could get along without their morning crutch, and Ted also knew the pandemic would never return. As Dr. Alethea proved before her death, what took out most of humanity wasn’t too out of the ordinary, microbiologically speaking. It was simply a bug that spread like wildfire in an era when people had gotten better at washing their hands before meals but, as they ate, still touched the phones that they’d dropped onto floors and used while on the toilet. Now, with a healthy fear of the internet and electronic technology in general, history would likely not repeat itself.

So everything was set. The night after hearing about the colony, Ted went into the Dr. Alethea’s lab and destroyed the things that needed destroying. He burned some notebooks and dumped beakers and vats, making sure there was nothing left that could enlighten or injure. Once done, he went to the back worktable and pulled the sheet off the headstone he had completed just days before. “Mr. Ted Richards,” it read on one side. “Rancher, farmer, and loving husband.” It was a simple epitaph, but one which he thought was perfect.

And for Dr. Alethea Richards on the other side, something even simpler, but even more perfect: “Her name meant TRUTH.”

Ted lingered until he remembered the news of the colonists, which made him break out in a grin once more.

Then he turned out the lights and went to sleep.


For all installments of “Making Pumpkin Spice Lattes in a Post-Apocalyptic Iowa,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1