Leola, Pa.-- The big pumpkins caught Mel Kalinski's eye before they came to auction. They were bright orange, with flat bottoms and good stems. The kind he could sell at the produce stand, Mel's, he operates at Baltimore's Cross Street Market.
The erect pumpkins were sitting on the back of a horse-drawn wagon being tended by two Amish farmers. The men, clad in the simple black garb of their faith, were patiently waiting their turn to bring their wagonload of produce to auction at the Leola (Pa.) Produce Auction Inc.
These perfect pumpkins were an example of what had drawn Kalinski and about 50 other produce buyers to this unadorned open pavilion about two hours northeast of Baltimore. This is the heart of Lancaster County, Pa., where the "plain people" -- Amish and Mennonite farmers -- till the soil with religious fervor. In the surrounding small, 125-acre farms, the ground is good, the labor intensive and the quality of the fruits and vegetables high.
"When you are buying face pumpkins, you don't want any leaners," Kalinski told me. Face pumpkins are the kind people decorate with a scary faces at Halloween, he said. These pumpkins should have broad faces and good posture. A "leaner," in the argot of pumpkin buyers, is one that slouches.
Pie pumpkins, the kind used to make pumpkin pie, are squat. With the short pie pumpkins, posture isn't a problem.
There were a few leaners in pumpkins that came to market that morning. The Mennonites brought their goods -- gorgeous tomatoes, symmetrical melons, fat lima beans -- to market in trucks or on wagons pulled by steel-wheeled tractors. The Amish brought their immaculate goods to market with horses.
Kalinski spotted the wagonload of pumpkins shortly after we arrived at the auction. He hurried to the auction house office to register and get a number enabling him to bid on them.
I stayed near the pumpkins, sipping a cup of coffee and enjoying the view. It was quite a picture. The wagon of gleaming pumpkins, the two huge draft horses, and two Amish men, a teen-ager and an older man, quietly waiting in the bright September sun.
Later I tried to strike up a conversation with the men. They didn't want to talk about themselves. Their name, they said, was Zook, just Zook. The boy was 14, the man with a white beard was his grandfather.
But when the topic of conversation was switched to pumpkins, they were more talkative. The pumpkins had been picked early that morning. When I picked up some pumpkins, they still had some of the chill of the field. These pumpkin had stems that were dark and strong. Other pumpkins in the auction had stems that were greenish. When the stems are green, the young Amish farmer reported, that was a sign that the pumpkins were aging.
Repeatedly I was struck by the picturesque nature of the auction. On the farmer's side of the auction house the parking lot filled up with horses. On the buyer's side were trucks, including 18-wheelers. As the auction began, Amish and Mennonite children scooted around the edges of the crowd. Their heads were covered in bonnets and hats, they behaved like children everywhere. They were curious, anxious to stay out of the way of adults, and drawn to bags of M&Ms sold at the auction house concession stand.
After an hour or two of listening, I was able to decipher the auctioneer's lingo: "Gimme a dollar here, gimme one and a quarter there." But I was never able to understand the conversation of the groups of Amish women that I eavesdropped on. That is because they were speaking a German dialect.
And I was continually amazed that the Amish and Mennonites were able to preserve their "plain ways" when they are surrounded by 20th century America. The route Kalinski and I had taken to the auction house -- Interstate 83 north to York, then U.S 30 east to beyond Lancaster -- was lined with car dealerships, fast-foods joints and motels. And our turnoff for the auction house, Brethren Church Road, was in the shadow of a large factory.
While I reveled in the scene, Kalinski set about his business. Before goods went up for auction, he examined them. He was on the lookout for lima beans, beets, potatoes. He popped open bean pods, and weighed boxes. He pawed through boxes of potatoes, making sure they were of a uniform size.
Size and the color determine how well potatoes sell, he said. In red potatoes, the kind people like to bake, you want medium and small sizes. With white potatoes, the kind people are likely to peel and mash, you want them medium and large. Nobody likes to peel a lot of small potatoes, he said.
During most of these inspections Kalinski was cool and detached. A buyer who didn't want to tip his hand. But this professional resolve melted when he came upon some particularly pleasing boxes of beets. "Now that," he said reaching out to pick up a bunch of beets, "is plain pretty."