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The Birthplace of Your ­Pumpkin Pies

Libby, McNeill & Libby of ­Morton, Illinois

Would you cook you own pumpkin?
    We who do are a minority. Pie makers will guard the locations of their cherry tree the way fishers do honey holes. But when the time comes to bake pumpkin pies, they buy their pumpkin in a can.
    “I’ve tried fresh and I didn’t like the texture,” says Lyn Laviana, who bakes the pumpkin pie I wish I did.
    Laviana says she doesn’t shop brands, but odds on her pumpkin is Libby’s. Eighty-five percent of the world’s canned pumpkin is planted, grown, harvested and processed by Libby, McNeill & Libby a subsidiary of Nestle, Inc. since 1976 — in Morton, Illinois.
    Read on to learn just what is in those cans as I saw with my own eyes at the world’s largest pumpkin factory.

Pumpkin Capital of the World
    “Ninety percent of the pumpkin in the world is produced right here in Morton, Illinois,” Libby, McNeill & Libby plant guide Maria Ruiz told me on a September day in 1977 as 9,000 tons of pumpkins rested in the sunlight on Libby’s loading dock.
    The fertile soil and climate of Tazewell County attracted Libby to central Illinois in 1929. Half a century later, the company leased 32,000 acres of pumpkin field. During the 10-week harvest season from mid-August through October, enough pumpkin was canned to make 50 million pies. Shifts ran 24 hours, processing enough pumpkin each day for one million pies.
    In Libbyland, the great pumpkin is a creature of quality rather than size. Libby’s Select is the variety.
    “It’s no orange Jack o’lantern and will never be bright orange,” said plant manager Adolph Bleke.
    Pure oblong is the goal, and one assembly line is staffed by experts seeking the perfect pumpkins to seed next year’s crop.

Minutes from Gourd to Can
    From conveyer to can, the legions of Libby’s Select are washed four or five times before the passage from pumpkin to puree is complete. They are wilted, cut and squeezed through giant colanders that press out the pulp but retain and discard skin and seed.
    Outside, where the air is heavy with the aroma of sun-warmed pumpkin, tractor-trailers unload their tons of pumpkin onto a mechanical chute. Workers fork the pumpkins onto conveyers that first tumble the fruit past pumpkin inspectors, then drop them into pumpkin-cutting machines. Once picked, these pumpkins are seldom touched.
    Indoors, workers tend the canner that squirts processed pumpkin into Libby’s three can sizes, seals them and sends them along to other machines for labeling and boxing.
    Click, click, click the machines sing. Workers wear earplugs. Up and down and straight ahead, shining cans speed along shining metal lines. Burnt-orange pulp oozes over the rims of the cans. After their seven-day resting time, these cans make their way to America’s kitchens, thence to holiday pies.
    In Libby’s plant laboratory, each day’s pumpkin is baked into eight pies sampled to guarantee that Thanksgiving and Christmas pies will be good enough for your table.
    When you take a bite, remember that the Great Pumpkin grew in Morton, Illinois, out of a Libby’s Select seed.