Sarah Frey is the undisputed pumpkin queen of America.
She grows more jacks (field shorthand for the basic big orange Halloween model) than anyone else in the country. This fall, she shipped more than 5 million. If it hadn’t been so hot and humid, she would have shipped more.
So it’s a little awkward when she throws shade on a crop that helped her buy the black Cadillac Escalade she drives along rural roads here in the state that grows more pumpkins than any other.
“I was over orange pumpkins 15 years ago,” she said. “That’s a terrible thing to say, because our biggest percentage of acreage is jacks. But it’s just not where I’m at with pumpkins.”
Frey, 40, crushes any image you may have of a pumpkin farmer. She has a taste for fedoras and an impressive collection of Frye boots in her closet. She also has farmland in seven states and millions of dollars in produce contracts in her desk drawer.
And she thinks America is ready to cook, not carve.
To that end, she has been planting fields with rough-skinned peanut pumpkins and beautiful slate-green Jarrahdales from Australia. She’s growing boxy speckled hounds and blue-green marina di Chioggias, blistered specimens with a sexy Italian name.
(Technically, they and the jacks are squash, which are part of the huge Cucurbit family, which also includes gourds, melons and cucumbers. Calling them pumpkins is more a matter of convenience than botany.)
That the pumpkin queen wants people to think beyond the jack-o'-lantern means that it is likely to happen, if only because of the volume of pumpkins she moves through a deep and wide slice of Middle America’s retail haunts. If you’ve bought a pumpkin at Wal-Mart or Lowe’s, the odds are good that it came from Frey Farms.
Edible pumpkins make up about a third of her harvest. Some go to processors to be canned, and some are sold as decorative elements. A new line she developed, Pumpkins of the World, is aimed in part at cooks; she’s pushing retailers like Target, Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart to market it that way.
“People who shop at Wal-Mart are just as educated about food as anyone, and they probably cook more than anyone, and they all know how good squash is for you,” she said with the kind of conviction that makes you glad you are not negotiating with her. “I don’t think this is a trend that’s going away.”
The pumpkin spice latte aside, squash isn’t exactly an American cultural barometer. Still, there have been some significant recent developments. In the mid-aughts, a handful of varieties popular mostly with heirloom-seed geeks rose up as stars of the home décor set. With their curves and bumps and unusual coloring, they became Pinterest princesses, finding champions in high-end urban designers and Martha Stewart devotees.
Frey, who got her start helping her mother sell melons from the back of a truck when she was still in elementary school, knows a good produce opportunity when she sees one.
So she branched out from jacks, planting unusual varieties, and convincing her biggest retail partners that they should sell the unusual-looking mix of pumpkins to aspirational shoppers looking to change up their fall decorating.
She called her new line Autumn Couleur, trademarked the name and shipped them out in branded cardboard bins ready to be plopped down onto the store floor.
At some point, people began asking if they could eat them.
“I always knew you could eat them, but I was like, why would you?” she said during a drive to an enormous packing plant and farm she owns in southern Indiana from the southeastern Illinois farm where she grew up. “Then I thought, ‘Jeez, what a waste to throw them away when they are done making your house look good.’”
She knew that only the most dedicated cook would want to crack open a 12-pound pumpkin and process it for food, so she pored through seed catalogs and selected a group of smaller pumpkins from around the world that would grow well, look good on a porch and perform in the kitchen.
At this point, every heirloom-seed saver and farmers’ market denizen may be muttering, “So what?” People have been growing and eating hard winter squash for ages, in North America and beyond. Pumpkin shows up in Indian curries, in Mexican moles and in stews across Africa.
Frey’s father farmed and tried to make money raising racing thoroughbreds. Her mother sold cantaloupes and watermelons to local grocery stores. Eventually, her brothers all left for college, or other pursuits. She stayed behind, doing whatever she could to make a buck.
By the 1990s, she had taken over her mother’s melon routes, selling fruit from their farm and what she could buy from others in the area. She was still a teenager when she got her foot in the door at Wal-Mart, back in the days before the company had central distribution centers and you could still cut a deal with a store manager.
“It was the wild, Wild West then,” she said.
The skills she developed negotiating with Wal-Mart became a case study at the Harvard Business School. Frey, who holds an associate degree in science, said her real education came from the many mistakes she has made.
“If I went on to a nice Ivy League school, I could have saved myself a lot of money,” she said.
Frey figures she has sold close to $1 billion’s worth of produce in her lifetime. Watermelons were the moneymaker, and still are. Pumpkins make up less than a quarter of her take, but she calls them her “pet crop.”
They came from desperation: Her father got sick, and the farmhouse was in foreclosure. So she bought it from the bank, along with the 80 acres she grew up on. The land sloped and was mostly clay. Perfect, she thought, for pumpkins. They would extend the growing season into the early fall, and wouldn’t take much tending.
“Everybody in the county thought the Frey girl had lost her mind,” she said. She kept buying farmland and growing more pumpkins and melons, sometimes contracting with older farmers whose children had left. She and her family now own about 15,000 acres.
“Some women buy shoes,” she said. “I buy farms.”
6 heirloom squash varieties
Cook with these squash varieties or use them to add color to your autumn décor.
This is a lovely pumpkin to fill with beef stew or even macaroni and cheese. The seed cavity is small, and the bright orange walls are thick, so it can be roasted and processed into plenty of purée to use in baking. The pumpkin stores well and has nice, large seeds for roasting.
A small, nutty squash, this is easy to roast and takes well to warm, savory and hot spices. The flesh is smooth, and the skin is edible. It’s a good squash to braise.
This Native American heirloom is making a comeback. The Lakota has very orange, smooth flesh, but it can be bland, so roast it with cumin, garam masala or other warm spices. The bumpy, colorful skin makes it attractive for decorating, and its thin skin makes it easy to roast.
This is a hard-to-find Australian variety that is sometimes called a shamrock or tri-star pumpkin. Although it has more flavor than other squash varietals, the triamble is better for decorating than cooking because its size (it can top 10 pounds) and hard texture challenge even dedicated cooks. The triamble stores well for several months.
A squash that has long been a staple of the Maori in New Zealand, this small, mottled green pumpkin is sometimes sold as kami kami. Kamo kamo are delicious young, prepared in the manner of a summer squash. It ripens into a hard winter squash that can be roasted or boiled and mashed with butter like a potato.
This thick-fleshed pumpkin can weigh 3 to 6 pounds. It almost looks as if it were painted, and makes for a beautiful and long-lasting ornamental pumpkin. It’s also delicious, with a sweet and nutty, dry light-orange flesh that can be stuffed and roasted whole.
– Kim Severson
Stuffed Baby Pumpkins
Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes
6 mini-pumpkins, preferably the white variety
1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 / 8teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more to prepare the shells
2 tablespoons butter
2 scallions (about 1/3 cup), chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
4 cups baby kale or stemmed and roughly chopped lacinato kale (about 4 ounces)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup white bread crumbs, lightly toasted
2/3 cups shredded Gruyère cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Wash the pumpkins. With a small, sharp knife, remove the tops as if for a jack-o'-lantern. Scoop out the seeds and stringy insides with a spoon, leaving the flesh intact. Rinse, then rub with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.
2. Melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat, then add the scallions and cook for a few minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute or so, until fragrant. Add the kale and cook until it just wilts, about 3 or 4 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in the lemon juice and transfer to a bowl. Add the bread crumbs, cheese, pine nuts, nutmeg, red pepper flakes, 1 / 4teaspoon salt and 1 / 8teaspoon black peppers. Mix well, then stir in the cream.
3. Divide the filling into the pumpkins and replace the tops. Rub a baking dish with olive oil and arrange the filled pumpkins in the dish.
4. Bake for 1 hour, watching to make sure the tops don’t brown too much. Test the pumpkins by piercing with a fork. If the skin doesn’t pierce easily, remove the tops and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes. Replace the tops and serve hot.
Yield: 6 servings
Chicken and Pumpkin with Dumplings
Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes
For the chicken:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small fryer chicken (2 1/2 to 3 1/ 2pounds), cut into 8 pieces
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 1-inch piece peeled fresh ginger, thinly sliced
2 cups of raw pumpkin, such as kabocha, Jarrahdale or red kuri, seeded, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, rough cut into large chunks
2 fresh bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups coconut milk
15 fresh Thai basil leaves, for garnish
For the dumplings:
2 cups rice flour
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1. Cook the chicken: Put the olive oil in a large Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid and heat on medium until the oil is hot. In a separate bowl, dredge the chicken pieces in flour. Drop the chicken into the hot oil, 2 or 3 pieces at a time. Be careful to avoid crowding. Brown for about 2 minutes on each side.
2. Remove the chicken from the Dutch oven. Add the shallots and ginger and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the pumpkin, celery, bay leaves, thyme, turmeric and salt. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute; stir in the stock.
3. Return the chicken to the Dutch oven; cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the coconut milk and stir just until combined.
4. Make the dumplings: In a medium bowl, mix the rice flour, cumin seeds and salt. Gradually stir 2 cups warm water into the rice flour mixture to make a soft dough that is not sticky; the dough will have a somewhat fragile, sandy texture.
5. Form 24 1/2-inch small balls of dough with your hands or a melon baller. Make a small divot in each dumpling by pressing down in the center with your thumb (much as you would in making gnocchi or orecchiette pasta) and place on a plate or baking sheet.
6. Set a steamer basket over a medium pan containing 1 quart water. Place the dumplings in the basket, making sure they are not touching, and cover. Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Steam the dumplings until they are firm and plump, 8 to 10 minutes.
7. Make the final dish: Drop the dumplings into the chicken mixture, stir ever so gently to coat the dumplings with the sauce, then cover again and simmer for 12 minutes. Remove from heat. Cut the basil into chiffonade, or thin ribbons. Serve in bowls with a scattering of basil.
Yield: 6 servings