THEY are, as one buyer at a New England farm stall described them recently, ``the cutest little pumpkins in town.'' He might well have said ``in the nation,'' for the Jack-be-Little pumpkin, a heavily fluted orange-colored miniature, has taken the country by storm these past two seasons. It's a 1-inch-tall, 2- to 3-inch-wide novelty, used principally as a decorative item. It's increasingly catching on with cooks and chefs because of its dainty size and sweet flesh.
Because the Jack-be-Little is an attention getter and a conversation piece - particularly if the creative cook serves up the soup in the hollowed out little fruits - people are asking, ``Where did it come from?''
Apparently no one knows for sure, even the suppliers, Hollar and Co. seed growers of Rocky Ford, Colo. Ten years ago, an Indiana farmer approached seed producers Bob Nelson and Larry Hollar with a bushel basket filled with miniature pumpkins. If they were prepared to work with the seed somewhat, ``clean it up a bit,'' as he put it, the company might be able to ``do something'' with his unusual pumpkins.
Mr. Nelson can no longer recall the farmer's name off the top of his head. ``We simply paid the man a lump sum and looked at what we had.''
What they had was a true pumpkin that was much smaller than any other the Hollar people had ever come across. The farmer had said he could sell the little fruits by the truckload whenever they reproduced true to form. The trouble was, they didn't always do that. Seeds collected from a miniature would produce some small offspring, but also others with fruits as variable in size, shape, and color as autos on a used car lot.
``Cleaning up'' the seed, getting it to breed true, in other words, was the immediate need. It took six years, but the investment tied up in the breeding program paid off handsomely.
``We knew the pumpkin would sell,'' Nelson says, but they had no idea it would take off as it did. Home gardeners and commercial growers alike took to producing the Jack-be-Little.
Novelty items have a way of skyrocketing in popularity one year and then falling the next, but the tiny pumpkin seems to be holding on. After four years on the market, seed merchants have already contracted with Hollar and Co. for 70 percent of this past season's record orders. ``That's very high for a novelty,'' Nelson says.
Perhaps the enduring popularity results from the nation's creative cooks, who took to what was before considered a mere decoration once they found out how sweet the flesh tasted.
California's Sunset Magazine told its readers to use the partly hollowed-out little pumpkins as serving bowls for pumpkin or vegetable soup. All told, a wide range of meat and vegetarian fillings have found their way into the little fruits. But Rob Johnston - whose Johnny's Selected Seeds of Albion, Maine, is one of several mail-order companies carrying the Jack-be-Little - thinks of it as a great dessert item, too.
``Cut off the top, scrape out the seeds, pour in an egg custard, then bake it,'' he says. How does it taste? ``Delicious,'' Mr. Johnston responds.
Johnny's Selected Seeds, Albion, ME 04910, and George W. Park Seed Company, Greenwood, SC 29647, both carry Jack-be-Littles.