Petite pumpkins are big on flavor

California has added what looks like another sleeper to its list of more than 50 specialty food crops - mini-pumpkins. Now appearing in produce markets at about 25 cents apiece, the fist-size, yellow gourd-like fruit appears on its way to becoming an every-fall food staple.

But mini-pumpkins didn't start out that way. Originally offered by a seed company at an agricultural fair in Davis, Calif., the new items were at first thought to be early-picked, immature pumpkins. In reality these were very new varieties called Munchkins and Jack B. Little - and full-grown at that.

According to California agricultural analysts, the tiny pumpkins were bought by interested onlookers at first as fall season decorations. But gradually minis began to catch on, both as Halloween/Thanksgiving brighteners and as innovative food.

Last year one grower in Manteca, Calif., shipped more than 600 tons of the petite veggie-fruit. And this year shippers are ahead of 1987 figures, though it may not be a full-fledged banner year because early hot weather has hindered pumpkin crop maturity.

Mini-pumpkins are expected to become a permanent part of the pumpkin season spectacle. Although they are still desirable as fall decorations, many say they could become another of the trendy gourmet foods for fall diets.

Los Angeles-based Frieda Caplan, director of Frieda's Finest Produce Specialties - which offers more than 17 varieties of squash - says the minis make delicious side dishes and are sweeter than dumpling squash.

During late October and well into November, pumpkins really take over the domestic produce market, California Food and Agricultural Department officials point out. At Half Moon Bay, the annual pumpkin festival has become such a tourist attraction that local production cannot cope with demand. Pumpkins have to be trucked in from other areas.

This is the time and place where growers of all stripes vie to become champion for the largest pumpkin grown. Watch for an added contest - maybe soon - to pick the champion for the tiniest.

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