PUMPKINS will glare through candlelit eyes at trick-or-treaters tonight. Three weeks from now, pumpkins in pies will crown Thanksgiving meals. But don't expect your Halloween jack-o'-lantern to wind up on your plate. Although edible, the familiar orange orb is not even a contender when it comes to first-rate pie filling. Other types consist of less water and more meat. These ``pie'' pumpkins yield a tastier, prettier filling.
To meet the pumpkin you eat, in early October set out across the Illinois River valley to Tazewell County. There, glinting in the autumn sun, are large, pale vegetables, colored somewhere between cantaloupe and peach.
These often-elongated pumpkins are of the Dickinson variety, grown under contract for the Libby division of the Nestl'e-owned Carnation Company.
Libby has been canning pumpkin in nearby Morton, Ill., since 1929, when it simultaneously acquired the Dickinson canning plant and exclusive rights to that variety of pumpkin, brought by the Dickinson family from Kentucky in the early 1800s. Today, just about all Thanksgiving cooks use canned pumpkin.
Libby claims a better than 90 percent share of the market for canned pumpkin. The Morton plant accounts for three-quarters of Libby's output, using pumpkin grown on just 4,000 acres in Tazewell and four adjacent counties. And Don Hunziker has been growing pumpkin for Libby for 20 years. Which means there's a fair chance that you've eaten pie from a pumpkin he planted.
``When you raise pumpkins, you need a lot of help from the Lord,'' Mr. Hunziker says. ``We can plant it, but we can't do anything to make it grow.''
Well, maybe some things. As he guides a visitor through one of his fields, the farmer, weathered as a wood barn and open as the horizon, ticks off several:
Crop rotation, he says, prevents a buildup in the soil of harmful organisms, since different pests eat different plants.
``If you planted pumpkin every year, why you'd just be overrun with bugs,'' says Hunziker, the grandson of a Swiss immigrant. He planted 120 of his 600 acres in pumpkin this year and the rest in corn, soybeans, and some hay.
``It's better if you can have a three- to four-year rotation. I have one place where I've been rotating pumpkin and beans for 15 years, but the pumpkin isn't as good,'' he says. ``The most high-yield pumpkins come from a field that never had pumpkins before.''
Weeds can be a problem, he notes. Libby is very particular about herbicides. The one kind the company allows, he says, stops everything except pigweed.
``I swear, I think it makes pigweed grow better,'' Hunziker says. He rubs a pigweed leaf with his thumb, loosening a profuse number of seeds. To prevent pigweed from taking over, once or twice a summer he walks his pumpkin fields, uprooting the weeds with a hoe.
Then there was an attack of downy mildew. ``It struck about the end of August,'' Hunziker says. ``It seems like every year it's something different. Last year it was powder mildew.'' The mildew was controlled by a chemical sprayed from a crop duster.
IF all goes well, Libby will harvest 25 to 30 tons of pumpkins per acre and pay $17 per ton, netting Hunziker about what he makes on corn and soybeans.
Interestingly, Libby does the harvesting. It dispatches specially made equipment to separate the pumpkins from the vines and move them into rows. Later, a tractor outfitted with a conveyer drives down the rows, scooping them up. It shoots one ton per minute into a tractor-trailer rig, which drives right through the field, staying alongside the tractor until it has a full load of 22 tons.
This harvest arrangement is good for the farmers, who can spend their time gathering in other crops. Even as Hunziker visits his pumpkin field, a few miles away his son is combining corn, which his wife, Anne, will drive to the co-op grain elevators in a Chevy dump truck.
``She's a better truck driver than I am,'' he comments. ``She's the best help I got.''
At the Libby plant in Morton, the trucks back onto a hydraulic platform. The platform tilts 45 degrees, lifting the truck's front end and causing the pumpkins to tumble into a washing pit.
From delivery to canning takes two to 12 hours, depending on whether the pumpkins are used during the day or stockpiled to keep the night shift busy.
``When we're running, we're running max,'' says plant manager Don Nodtvedt.
In the harvest season, the plant processes 500,000 pumpkins a day - enough for more than 1 million pies. Libby reckons that 45 million households in the United States will eat 88 million pumpkin pies next month.
The dessert has been essential to Thanksgiving since the holiday began. Colonists in Connecticut went so far as to postpone the annual feast when a ship was late in bringing molasses, used for sweetening their pies.
``What moistens the lip, what brightens the eye, what calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?'' enthused 19th-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier.
Little wonder that 90 percent of Libby's pumpkin is sold from October to January. Pumpkins, the last vegetables harvested, are as emotive of the season as leaf eddies, premature dusk, and the far-off sound of migrating geese.
``The mindset is very difficult to break,'' Mr. Nodtvedt says. Libby, understandably, would like to reeducate consumers to eat pumpkin year round.
The company touts the vegetable's nutritional value. It publishes a recipe book that features pumpkin in barbecue sauce, brownies, chili, crepes, granola, ice cream, pancakes, pizza crust, salads, scones, souffl'es, soup, spreads, truffles, and yogurt.
But even when cooks experiment with such novelties, they do so in the fall, Nodtvedt says. Perhaps a comment of Ben Franklin's speaks for all Americans content with the basics.
``If I could sit down to dinner to a piece of their excellent saltpork and pumpkin,'' the diplomat and bon vivant wrote in 1784, ``I would not give a farthing for all the luxuries of Paris.''
Last in a series. Other articles ran Sept. 26 (Maine potatoes); Oct. 2 (apples in Massachusetts); Oct. 10 (tropical fruit in California); Oct. 17 (Georgia peanuts); Oct. 24 (Oregon pears).