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The great canned pumpkin hunt: Fans won't let Festal go

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A can of pumpkin at the grocery store this holiday season will cost you about $1.50. Three bucks if you're going organic.

But if you're looking for Festal Golden Pie Pumpkin, you're going to have to look to eBay.

The online auction site has multiple listings for Festal, "pride of the Midwest." Three cans for $20, six for $32. Undamaged, unopened, unused — "The ONLY Canned Pumpkin To Make PIE With...." one listing promises.

Over on Amazon, it's the same story: Festal cans there are sold for an average of $6.50 each.

"Is this the real Festal?" one customer wants to know.

The response: "Yes it is. Outrageous price but it's the real deal." Over the last few years, the gold-toned cans of Festal pureed pumpkin have become the Air Jordans of the Thanksgiving table: People trade tips online about where to find them.

The Minnesota-born pumpkin brand was a longtime holiday staple before it began disappearing from local grocery store shelves. For decades it was produced by the Owatonna Canning Company in southern Minnesota. In the '90s, the brand was sold to Chiquita, and then to Seneca Foods Corp. in 2003. Now the cans are a rare, coveted find.

Fans have taken to posting sightings on Facebook: "I found 1 can at Byerly's in Burnsville. I guard it and [save] it for that special occasion!"

"I stocked up in Albert Lea, MN. It was at Hy-Vee on the bottom shelf."

Rumors abound that the brand has been discontinued. Some Festal fans say they've been told by Seneca Foods' customer service department that the canned pumpkin is out of production.

There's even a Facebook group devoted to bringing it back.

But, according to Seneca Foods, it never went away.

A representative for Seneca Foods said that the company "still proudly packs that label" — but declined to say which stores stock those coveted cans. They said only that they'll keep delivering it as long as retailers keep asking for it.

A lot of Minnesota shoppers, nostalgic for the taste of the pumpkin pies of their childhoods, would like to know exactly who those retailers are. The company's product locator — "find Seneca products at stores near you" — doesn't list Festal as an option. Fans say it shows up sporadically at stores in southern Minnesota, and they're left to grab when they can where they can.

Earlier this month, Angie Probst saw a few cans of Festal at a store near her home in Owatonna. She bought 12.

"The clerk looks at me weird. I'm like, whatever."

Probst added those 12 to the stockpile of Festal she's been building in her basement. She keeps them in a makeshift pantry by the furnace.

Shelf space is running low; she has more than a hundred cans down there.

They're carefully organized by expiration date. One batch is set to expire this December.

"I have a lady that works at the food shelf, and she said [that,] supposedly, canned items can go about two years past expiration date, so I'm hoping that's true," Probst said. "I guess I better get on making some pies."

She's not the only one trying to outrun expiration dates in pursuit of Festal pies. One Amazon customer advises: "I ignore exp date. When I open it and it smells good and still looks golden I use it."

And Probst wouldn't dream of using any other canned pumpkin: "It's just different. You ask anybody around here, and they'll say Festal. That's all they use. They don't use Libby's, they don't use the cheap stuff, they won't use anything else."

Part of the Festal affinity is town pride. Festal Golden Pie Pumpkin was born at the Owatonna Canning Company, less than two miles from Probst's house. That was decades ago. The mix was made from locally grown squash; the now-coveted pie recipe on the back was written by an Owatonna home economics legend and radio host.

Owatonna pride aside, the main reason for Probst's Festal loyalty is taste. Superfans attribute the flavor to the specific kind of pumpkin used in the original recipe — Golden Delicious.

"It's just way better," Probst said. "You ask anyone in this town, they'll tell you that."

Even her pets love it. "It sounds crazy," Probst said. "[My dog] prefers Festal over anything, and my two cats will eat it, too. If I give them the choice between Friskies or Festal, they'll eat Festal."

Sharing with her pets, or with anyone, is becoming a difficult choice: Who really deserves some of her coveted Festal stash? Probst used to bake pumpkin pies year-round and give them away, but now she finds herself getting protective. For her, the flavor is personal.

She's been baking with Festal since she was small; she made her first pie at seven.

She and her twin brother would refuse to eat cake on their birthday. They would have a Festal pumpkin pie with a candle in it instead.

"I can eat one of my whole pies in a day," she said, "because they're just so damn good. They are delicious."

As they grew older and her brother moved to Wyoming, Probst would make pumpkin pies and send them to him. She'd make them any time they were together. Four years ago, on New Year's Eve, her brother died. The Festal pumpkin pies still remind her of her twin.

She's not prepared to think about the day when that basement stockpile runs out, or about making her last Festal pie.

"It'll be a sad day," she said.

Lorraine Teel worries that her own last Festal pie is imminent.

A New York native, Teel learned to cook from her husband's aunt when she first moved to Minnesota. Aunt Mimi taught her a lot of recipes — and instilled a love of Festal in the process.

"I used to make pumpkin bars, pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread," Teel remembers. One day, she tried a brand of canned pumpkin that wasn't Festal.

Everything was wrong: the color, the texture, the taste. "The pie turned out awful." She vowed never to stray again.

A few years ago, Teel noticed Festal was getting harder to find at grocery stores near her house in Minneapolis. She sensed trouble. She started calling around, but nobody had it.

"My daughter, she found a secret stash of Festal at some grocery store somewhere," Teel said. She's been baking with the dwindling cans for the last few holiday seasons.

But now, she said, they're down to two.

"After that, honest to god," Teel said, "I don't know what we're going to do. What's Thanksgiving, and, frankly, Christmas, without it?"

This story originally appeared at: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/11/22/festal-foods-canned-pumpkin

© 2017 Minnesota Public Radio. All rights reserved.

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