The great pumpkin ravage

In Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Two, my consort and I crisscrossed the USofA for our ahead-of-its-time/ill-fated book documenting harvests of a dozen foods that come into season only once a year. We cheated with Alaskan halibut, since that was a literally “man”dated harvest, but otherwise we timed our trips to be at the right place at the peak moment for Nature-driven light, photos and action even when the farmers/fishermen/foragers were too distracted to want to talk.

Lately this old is seeing so much gush and disinformation about one harvest that I had to dredge this chapter back up. Twenty-four years on, I give big props to our friend George Steinmetz, who got photos published the other week documenting what we were starting to see that fall, when the settings were so dramatic thanks to what the keepers of the land saw as “Mount Pinatubo sunsets.” This was not a harvest but a rape of the fields. All worth it for 99 cents a can, though . . .

October 1992: Maybe it was too little sleep the night before we flew into Peoria. It could have been the after-effects of the processed turkey and processed cheese on cotton bread with frozen fries at the cafe promising home cooking, family style. Or maybe it was just the sting of the rebuff when we tried to waltz into Libby’s to see how the filling for 88 million Thanksgiving pies gets into the can.

Whatever the excuse, our first sight of the pumpkin harvest in full swing had us both standing stupefied at the edge of a sprawling field in Morton, Illinois, Pumpkin Capital of the World. Huge tractor-trailers were barreling up and down tidy rows of misshapen and anemic-looking squash while machines scooped them up and bounced them into the truck beds like so many basketballs. The respect shown the field and the food was about on the level sanitationmen give an avenue in New York City after a particularly messy street fair.

“This isn’t a harvest,” we found ourselves muttering almost in unison. “This is rape.”

But what happens to the great pumpkin on the farm really doesn’t matter in the long term. This is agribusiness at its most military-effective. Unlike almost every other crop we saw being carefully, even lovingly, shepherded to market, pumpkins are just fodder for the factory. Farmers may plant seeds and thin out the vines to increase the yield, but canneries take over fertilizing and insect control before reaping the rewards in September and October. If it all feels soulless, it’s because the harvesters are essentially the cleanup crew.

What the growers turn over to the canners is also nothing like the bright orange jack-o’-lanterns kids carve up, or even like the small, perfectly round and very sweet squash I buy at the farmers’ markets in new York from September into November. The 30- and 40-pound specimens we saw heading for the can would shake even Linus’ faith. Known as Dickinson’s variety, they are oversized, elongated, thick-fleshed and buff-colored — in short, light-years away from Cinderella’s carriage.

They make fine eating, in anything from muffins to soup to cinnamon rolls, but they are cultivated mostly for their durability and high yield. No one gets emotionally involved with this kind of pumpkin, not when trucks are barreling over neat rows of them at 5 miles an hour, which is Andretti speed for a field. What made it even stranger was hearing David Kaeb, standing in a field one dewy morning, reminisce about his father riding the rows in a hayrack and handling each one individually with a pumpkin fork. Probably once this was a real harvest, too.

How far it has come from its roots was evident at Libby’s in Morton. Rather than being escorted through the plant, we were shown one of those cheesy industrial videos that try to make an assembly line look like Michael Jackson with backup. This may prevent industrial espionage and liability lawsuits, but it’s not the same as seeing how the huge mountain of pumpkins out in the receiving yard is actually transformed into canned puree.

At Libby’s we did hear that old rumor about other canners using squash instead of pumpkin, but the mountain outside the Princeville Canning Company north of Peoria looked just like the one in Morton. And when we barged in one bitterly cold day, the manager, David Stoner, gave us a spontaneous tour of how those tons of pumpkins move through a rinse cycle, a chopper and a steam bath that wilts the pulp before it is squeezed to the right level of moisture density. As he said, pumpkins are mostly water, and when they’re all done, they’re still mostly water. A ton of the freshly picked squash yields exactly 600 pounds of cooked pulp.

The deep orange flesh — and nothing but — is then piped into gleaming tin cans, sealed and sprayed with a code detailing the date and time of canning, the type of pumpkin inside and even the field of origin. A second heating to sterilize the contents turns them the rusty mud color so familiar to pie bakers everywhere. The final step is labeling, whether with the Read brand or a supermarket private logo.

Princeville reinforced my faith in pumpkin as one of the purest canned foods, but I was still depressed by all we had seen in the fields until we found Tanner’s Orchard in Speer, 17 miles north of Peoria. Harold and Imogene Tanner are the kind of farmstand entrepreneurs who know you can sell more apple and cider with a petting zoo, a hayride and, at Halloween, a funhouse. They also offer pick-your-own pumpkin from fields that are also mostly harvested by hand by Tanner’s crew. This is the kind of human-scale operation that uses not pesticides but “integrated pest management,” or entomologists trying to combat insects with other insects.

The respect extended right down to all the signs warning that a stem is not a handle. Watching Tanner’s workers carefully cut each pumpkin off its stem and carry it, cradled, off to miniature pickup trucks made the harvest seem almost human again. These pumpkins, like the canned kind, admittedly were bound not for glory but for pie. But at least they got a little foreplay first.