The Morton Pumpkin Festival is a community hit for many reasons, not the least of which is the unique food items. People from all over the country flock to sample recipes that highlight pumpkin, an unlikely but surprisingly popular flavor. From pumpkin chili and pumpkin pancakes to pumpkin fudge and pumpkin ice cream, some joke that Bubba Gump’s monopoly on shrimp dishes is rivaled by this festival’s pumpkin options.

From mom-and-pop bakeries to national chains, area businesses produce deliciously popular items in tribute to the community’s favorite fruit. Local chefs of all ages experiment with original pumpkin recipes in an annual cooking contest. The two biggest festival destinations—the Food Tent and the Delight Tent—continue to expand their offerings each year. Why do they do it? It’s a celebration of world-famous pumpkins and the small-town community spirit they represent.

Flapjack Fun in the Morning

Another Food Tent event also features a contribution from Rocke’s: nearly 1,200 pounds of its country-style sausage are used at the annual Pumpkin Pancake Breakfast.

On Saturday morning, breakfast co-chairman Phil Witzig arrives at the food tent at 4:30 a.m. to make sure the 18 pancake griddles and mounds of ingredients are in place. At 5:00, volunteer crews begin mixing up the batter, and by 6:00, long lines are already forming. Although the breakfast is scheduled from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m., many years it stays open only until the food runs out. Witzig said that he’s surprised by the number of people who enjoy the pancakes, which he described as “not overly pumpkin-y, just a nice light pumpkin flavor…there’s the spice too, like cinnamon.”

A pancake volunteer for 10 years, Witzig knows from experience how much work the breakfast involves. His first year on the committee, the lack of experienced staff somehow led him to the position of chairman—a time he remembers as “just chaos.” The old, propane-driven griddles battled with the team of rookies and won, producing either burnt or too-gooey pancakes. Then a fuse blew from the coffee percolators. “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Witzig said, laughing, was accidentally dumping a commercial-sized amount of ketchup on his shoe when trying to help a customer.

Despite this trouble—which only lasted his first year—Witzig maintains his involvement because he “literally just love(s) pancakes.” A host of dedicated pancake flippers, including Rocke and his grandfather and Witzig’s brother Scott, help to serve an estimated 3,000 people each year.

Phil Witzig pours pancake batterBecky Grimm shows off a delicious pork chopThe Rocke familyCathy Diefenbach with a delightful treatVolunteers Scott Witzig & Nick ScibonaKaren Lohr and her grandson share an elephant ear

Stop at the Pop & Chop

The popularity of the Food Tent makes long lines inevitable, but the Pop & Chop Tent offers a smaller version for visitors on the go. According to Don Farden, head of this tent for the past 13 years, only pork chop sandwiches, chips and sodas can be found at the festival’s version of fast food.

Seven volunteers—four taking orders and three making sandwiches— keep the lines moving quickly, while Farden and a second supervisor make sure the food never runs out.

“You wouldn’t believe how fast it works! You can bring a tub to the grill to pick up more pork chops, and about the time you get back, you might as well turn right back around and get some more!” Farden said. “It’s set up for one purpose; we did it for families and people to not have to stand in long lines, which sneak around the whole block.”

Sweet Tooths Welcome

The Delight Tent is next on our whirlwind tour of pumpkin delectables. Visitors come to this tent for the pumpkin butter, muffins, pies, fudge and more. Nearly every year a new item is added to the menu. As the tent’s chair, Don Jones, says, if you can add pumpkin to it, he’ll bring it in.

According to Jones, who has headed up the tent for the past six years, the bestselling delight is the pumpkin ice cream. A sweet blend of ice cream, pumpkin and cinnamon, the treat is so popular that dedicated volunteers spend hours packing the ice cream into quarts for customers to take home. Another favorite is the pumpkin praline cheesecake; between 400 and 500 slices of this original recipe are sold every year.

This year the tent welcomes a new donut vendor, who will produce nearly 18,000 fresh donuts during the course of the festival. They are sold alone, by half or full dozens or, most deliciously, in pumpkin donut caramel sundaes. Jones said they sell out of this item every day. Visitors stop by the tent as early as 6 a.m. on Saturday for coffee and donuts—if you miss the pancake breakfast, indulge your sweet tooth here instead.

While other tents have set hours, Jones said the Delight Tent has a simple policy. “If the flaps are up, we’re selling…if the flaps are down, we’re closed.” From roughly 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., up to 22 volunteers keep the sugary stuff at-the-ready.

Pumpkin in the Kitchen

A celebration of pumpkin wouldn’t be complete without the Pumpkin Cookery Contest. Each year nearly 60 amateur chefs of all ages concoct pumpkin recipes which require a minimum of one cup of Libby’s 100 percent pure pumpkin product. Sponsored by Nestlé, this cooking contest has stirred up national TV coverage on the Food Network’s All American Festivals.

A Healthy Alternative

Last year’s Grand Prize winner was Janice Anderson, who wowed the judges with her Grilled Portabella Mushrooms with Pumpkin Risotto dish. Anderson has entered the contest almost every year since 1993.

A former nurse, Anderson described cooking as her favorite hobby and a family tradition. The Food Network and numerous cooking magazines provide inspiration for her, and family members are always willing to exercise their taste buds on a new dish. Her husband also encourages new recipes through his sportsman lifestyle; the wild game he brings home prompts her to create nontraditional favorites, such as goose ravioli. Several of her recipes have been published in Ducks Unlimited and related publications.

Since moving to Morton years ago, Anderson has discovered unique and healthy ways to use pumpkin in her meals. “I use it often as a substitute for lard or other high-fat items, kind of like using applesauce,” she said. “Pumpkin is low in fat and high in fiber…usually half is a good amount to use.”

Her creation for last year’s contest was inspired by an existing recipe she borrowed from Williams-Sonoma. Anderson fashioned her own healthier version and solicited help from her husband and a friend, who sampled and suggested changes. Each year she depends on family members to act as a pre-judging panel, and the fun makes this contest a tradition.

“My favorite part is involvement with family…even if we don’t win, we will still eat it all the time!” she said.

A Tasty Experiment

The second-place winner was Dianna Wara, who has been a competitive chef for close to 15 years. Because most of the competitions in which she participates do not allow professional chefs, Wara has never taken any cooking classes. Instead, she learned from the best chef around: her mother.

“My mom was an at-home, from-scratch baker and cooker. One thing Mom always taught me was that you should never be afraid to experiment,” Wara said. “I enjoy making up recipes myself; I experiment to get the flavor just right.”

While her original recipe for Pumpkin Packed Italian Sirloin Patties was a prize-winner, Wara says she was just trying something new. In addition to entering the Cookery Contest for the past 10 years, Wara enters state fairs as well as national competitions. Her most rewarding experience was at the Pillsbury Bake-Off competition two years ago, where her original Warm Chicken Taco Salad won one of five $10,000 prizes.

At the Pumpkin Festival, Wara’s favorite part of the contest is stopping by afterward to pick up her dishes. “It’s always neat to talk with the others…I really like the interaction with the other competitors.” Stopping by the Food Tent for a pork chop is high on her list, too. a&s