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Temperatures still are pushing 80, school buses still are pristine, and tomatoes still are ripening. But, with apologies to the late Charles Schulz, the Great Pumpkin has arrived. Whether that means "Good!" or "Good grief!" depends on how your tastes jibe with the calendar.

For many, pumpkin flavors are an almost sacred symbol of autumn. A Valentine's dessert made with pumpkin would just be ... wrong.

But we may be in the midst of pumpkin creep.

This year, Caribou Coffee had its earliest- ever rollout of pumpkin flavors, notably its new pumpkin chai.

Alfredo Martel, senior vice president of marketing, said that a customer's mind-set "starts to shift toward fall around mid-August as they start to get ready for school." Because we're still sweating, the pumpkin chai is designed to be served both hot or iced. "That way we could extend the promotion of this popular flavor and give our guests their pumpkin earlier than ever."

Likewise, Dairy Queen's pumpkin pie blizzard already is being served in some states, causing a mini-ripple among the treat's near-cultish followers. Independent proprietors make their own decisions about when to serve what, said DQ spokesman Dean Peters, although that blizzard's usual debut is Oct. 1.

Peters said the pumpkin pie blizzard has been around since 1991 and is one of the most popular seasonals, so much so that DQ is adding a pumpkin pie-flavored MooLatté drink and a pumpkin Royal Shake to its line.

At McDonald's, its popular pumpkin pie/turnovers should start showing up on menus in mid-September, according to one local manager. That may reinvigorate the debate about whether pumpkin pie ever should be served hot. But they've been around for several years, so there are fans.

Of course, some places never stop serving pumpkin. The Malt Shop in Minneapolis always offers pumpkin malts, and Betty's Pies in Two Harbors, Minn., always has slabs of pumpkin on hand. Starbucks' website calls its pumpkin scone its most popular.

Starbucks' pumpkin spice lattes became available last week, waiting until after Labor Day, but still before people's tan lines have faded.

Is that a pumpkin in your pocket, or are you just ...

Our love of pumpkin isn't just about the flavor, or even the season. It's also about sex.

In the 1990s, a researcher at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago found that the smell of pumpkin pie, especially combined with a whiff of lavender, proved highly arousing to men. Granted, the research also found few scents that didn't arouse men. But pumpkin still ruled the roost, so to speak.

Last month, Seattle's Best Coffee named the winner of its nationwide search for a new coffee: a Des Moines woman who combined pumpkin pie spice and caramelized bacon. She called it "How to Win a Guy With One Sip."

Other new pumpkiny products already are on store shelves, including Pepperidge Farm's pumpkin cheesecake soft cookies and a Celestial Seasonings tea called Sweet Harvest Pumpkin. Or you can make your house smell like pumpkin with several new scented air fresheners from Febreze, Glade and Air Wick.

Why pumpkin? Why now?

Why are pumpkin flavors so wed to fall? After all, we eat apples year-round without a second thought. Chalk it up to tradition and availability, said Brenda Langton, who owns Spoonriver in Minneapolis. She said she hasn't yet put pumpkin on her seasonal menu, "but we'll go a little crazy when we do."

Langton noted that around the world, pumpkin often is an all-purpose word for winter squash. While Americans specify acorn or butternut varieties, an Australian simply calls everything pumpkin.

Likely, the limited availability of the genus Cucurbita is what drives tradition. "I mean, I cook squash all year, and many restaurants have squash ravioli year-round," Langton said. Perhaps pumpkin's absence from the marketplace for so many months makes the tastebuds grow fonder.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185