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Family Patchwork : Pumpkin Peddlers Carve Out a Seasonal Livelihood

October 20, 1985|GAIL POLEVOI | Times Staff Writer

If Debbie Jones doesn't sell you a Halloween pumpkin, chances are good that her mother will. Or her father. Or her husband, sister or brother.

Jones, 24, runs a pumpkin patch at Pacific Coast Highway and Artesia Boulevard in Hermosa Beach--one of her family's six pumpkin stands.

And the Cottones--Tony Cottone, 57, and two of his sons--peddle pumpkins from two lots in Torrance.

In the South Bay, pumpkins are a family affair.

Debbie Jones stands in the shadow of her trailer and mops her brow.

She surveys her pumpkins, lying in rows, soaking up the noonday sun. But she finds no customers in sight on this mid-October day.

"Business is always slow at the beginning," she said, "but I think it's going to be a good year."

Debbie Jones should know. Although a beautician by trade, she has sold pumpkins each October for the past three years from this lot overlooking the ocean. At Thanksgiving, she switches to Christmas trees. Her family, the DiMeglios, has sold pumpkins for the last eight years and Christmas trees for the last 40.

"We each have our own lot--me, my sister, my brother, my father and my mom."

But Jones is getting some help at her lot this year: She is seven months pregnant and her doctor won't let her lift the pumpkins.

Tending a patch is "a lot of hard work," Jones said. "You have to move the pumpkins every day. If it rains, you have to move them to a dry spot. And you have to pick up the rotten ones. I let my husband Greg do that."

A 2-year-old customer arrives with her grandparents in tow. After much browsing and some bawling, she makes a selection. Jones makes a $1 sale.

"A lot of people ask me for help," Jones said, "but I recommend they pick out their own. I'm too picky. I like the light orange ones with the deep ridges. And I like the tall stems--they give the pumpkin some character."

When she's not waiting on customers, Jones said, the pumpkin patch can get "very boring. My mother makes pumpkin pies in the camper on her lot, but I'm not much of a cook.

"I prefer selling Christmas trees. It's like being in a forest in the middle of the city and it smells so good."

"Would you like a piece?"

Ann DiMeglio, Debbie Jones' mom, pulls a foil-wrapped dish out of the refrigerator in her tiny trailer, which--like her daughters'--is plopped in the middle of a pumpkin patch. DiMeglio likes to offer slices of pie to visitors at her lot at Oak Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Lomita.

It's not really her pie, she's quick to confide. It's Nancy Reagan's recipe, which DiMeglio found in a magazine four years ago and has been baking ever since--about 30 pies each Halloween season.

"It's President Reagan's favorite," she said. "It's made with pecans, and chunks of pumpkin, so it's chunky, not smooth like regular pies."

DiMeglio, warming to her subject, switches off her television soap opera and settles in a folding chair outside her trailer. Business is slow in the middle of the day.

"I baked two yesterday. And I've got some now all ready for the oven, but it's too hot to put them in. But," she adds, "I do have a confession to make. I used walnuts. Pecans are too expensive and these taste just as good."

DiMeglio passes along her recipe to anyone who asks. She'll hand her visitor a piece of paper and pen and recite the ingredients from memory: Karo syrup, brown sugar . . .

With Halloween nearly two weeks off, DiMeglio spends much of her time by herself. She says she keeps busy "playing house" in the trailer, making curtains and reupholstering a couch.

She predicts brisk business by the end of the month. "The economy is very good," she says. "People are working."

Ask Tony Cottone about pumpkin pie filling and he'll say: "Go get it in the can."

Boiling the pumpkin takes hours, he explains, and "by the time it's done, you've got about two inches of it in the kettle. Taste it. You'll want to throw it out."

Cottone, a pumpkin vendor for the past 12 years, may not have much patience for the kitchen but he appears completely comfortable under the canopy of his stand at Crenshaw and Sepulveda boulevards in Torrance. He sits with his son Tom, 32, and daughter-in-law, Melanie, 23. They alternately drag on their Marlboros, snuff out the butts in the straw underfoot and reach for another from the pack.

He's really a building contractor, Cottone says, but he fell into the Christmas tree business with his ex-brother-in-law. His sons joined him, "selling trees with Daddy." Pumpkins followed.

"The pumpkins set you up with clientele for Christmas trees," he said. "If I could sell turkeys in between, I would."

Cigarette in hand, Cottone gestures toward Crenshaw. "I had 106 acres leased across the street. I was raising strawberries." He had to relinquish the property for a building development. "Now they're going to build 1,840 condos."

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