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The Life of Pie

It's all pumpkin all the time in the central Illinois town of Morton. Just ask Mark Pfeifer, Libby's operational manager -- and taster.

October 09, 2004|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

MORTON, Ill. — Mark Pfeifer loves pumpkin pie more than any sane healthy man should.

The warm autumn air is thick and sweet, and the sound of metal blades mashing pumpkins drowns out conversation as Pfeifer -- the operational manager of Libby's processing plant -- loosens his belt for his daily dessert duty.

Pfeifer slips into the plant's laboratory. There, among the test tubes and glass beakers, sits a line of pumpkin pies.

Warm. Welcoming.

The pumpkins used to make these pies have been grown and canned in this central Illinois town, which produces 80% to 90% of all the canned pumpkin sold in America.

Before the pumpkins hit store shelves, Pfeifer must taste-test a sample from each batch. Using the recipe printed on the back of the can, the plant's test kitchen reproduces the baking steps taken each year by countless home cooks, and Pfeifer is here to make sure the pumpkin lives up to its part.

Blended with spices and condensed milk, the pumpkin mixture is poured into pie shells and baked. Pfeifer walks across the linoleum floor, grabs a knife and cuts a slice no wider than his thumb.

"Every day, there are pies that we have to taste. That's every day we work, every day for 10 weeks or more," Pfeifer said. "I'm on my feet for 13 hours a day, working in 100-degree heat, and I'm still 20 pounds overweight."

From the first days of harvest in late August to early November, when the canning is completed, this plant processes about 150,000 tons of pumpkins -- or enough to make 90 million pies.

Lined up, crust to crust, they would span from Plymouth Rock to the Oregon coast five times, said Tim Miller, a quality assurance manager for Nestle USA, which owns Libby's and the processing plant. That's enough dessert to fill a road that would stretch halfway around the world.

"We have a lot of time on our hands during the off-season to figure these sorts of things out," Miller said.

Although food historians can trace recipes for pastries filled with a mixture of stewed squash, sugar, spices and cream to medieval times, experts say the modern pumpkin pie dates to the 1700s. By then, European settlers had adapted their holiday traditions of serving meat or fruit pies and began using local crops such as pumpkins.

Over time, recipes were passed down among families and neighbors, and the pumpkin pie soon became a Thanksgiving tradition. A pie recipe has appeared on Libby's cans of pumpkins for at least 50 years.

With Libby's crop and other edible and ornamental squash, Illinois farmers grow one-fourth of the nation's pumpkins. The state's harvest is worth about $12.3 million a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Morton's identity is clearly linked to pumpkins. The sign leading into town features a bright orange pumpkin. Locals sip coffee in cafes and debate whose pie recipe is the best. Nearly a dozen shops specialize in pumpkin merchandise: ornaments for Christmas trees; candy for Easter baskets; and flags for the Fourth of July.

It wasn't always like this.

Back in the 1800s, when the town was just forming, the land was boggy and thick with hardwood forests. Immigrants came here eager to work in the logging industry. Many families nurtured small vegetable gardens, and a few farmers struggled to plant crops in their marshy fields.

The forests thinned over the decades, and the watery land was drained. What emerged, by the early 1900s, were miles of soil, black as ink with an abundance of nutrients.

"Farmers replaced the loggers, and the crops grew," said Mike Badgerow, executive director of the Morton Chamber of Commerce.

In 1929, Libby's bought the canning plant near the center of town. The plant then canned corn and peas.

The company also acquired all rights to the Dickinson pumpkin, brought to the region by Kentucky farmers in the 1800s and preferred by locals for their holiday pies. After signing contracts with local farmers to grow the squash, Libby's began canning pumpkins here along with the other vegetables. For decades, though, most of the company's pumpkin was processed in nearby Eureka.

In 1973, Libby's started processing its entire pumpkin crop at the Morton plant because it was closest to the pumpkin fields.

Libby's main rival, Seneca Foods Corp., has a smaller packing plant about 30 miles east in Princeville. And like Libby's, Seneca and other independent companies have spent years modifying and altering pumpkins to produce their own special strain to can.

On the surface, the Dickinson pumpkin is unappealing. A misshapen, pale sibling to its brighter-colored brethren, the oblong Dickinson averages 20 pounds. It has ridges streaking the rind and looks more like a butternut squash. When ripe, the fruit's skin tends to be a dull gold or tan.

But inside, the sweet-smelling flesh is burnt orange. Compared with other varieties of pumpkins, there is more flavorful meat per pound: The rind is thinner, the seeds are fewer and the hollow core inside each fruit is smaller.

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