Boxed lunches perfect for picnics

Published 12:56 pm Thursday, May 23, 2019

By Stephanie Williams Dean

Bless Your Spoon

Vicki Smitherman and Christine Bralley of Mocksville Woman’s Club recently planned a club field trip to Historic Bethabara Park. Following a tour of the old Germanheis, women gathered around picnic tables under the broad canopy of an old oak tree to enjoy box lunch picnic catered by Mrs. Pumpkins.

Some of the best life stories are personal success stories – hearing about others who’ve done well. Their tales often illustrate Alexander Bell’s quote, “When one door closes, another opens.”

Desty McEwan, aka Mrs. Pumpkins, has a feel-good story, going from feeling food insecure as a single mom with kids to feed to a business that filled 95,000 orders for chicken pie in 2018. Desty moved to Winston Salem in 1976 with two young daughters and initially landed a job working for a temporary agency as a Kelly girl so she could stay home with her kids when necessary.

Back in the 70s, she was the mother earth type. She made baby food, baked her own bread, and grew a pesticide-free garden long before organic was a household word.

Then she realized there was no place in town to buy good bread – what she calls good bread – the hard crusty type.

“I was 27 years old and knew nothing about nothing. I decided I would open a bakery – how hard could that be?”

The idea proved more difficult than Desty had imagined. But she opened a bakery in King where she was living. She opened a second store at College Village in Buena Vista in Winston-Salem. At a time when bakeries were dying, the timing wasn’t good. Grocery stores were her biggest competition, and the smaller bakeries couldn’t compete.

Desty began to broaden her marketing by selling cakes to restaurants. She picked up a few big name customers selling to Ryans, Encore, and Zevely House. Both Steak and Ale and the Raddison in High Point were selling her bread.

“They used a lot of bread, but you really didn’t make any money back then making bread like you do now.”

“I love every part of making bread, its sensuous, earthy smelling, and tastes so good. I just feel so good when it’s in the oven and feel like I’ve accomplished something. I’ve been teaching young people to bake bread. You have to have patience when you bake.”

At first, Desty didn’t find success because she didn’t know anything about the financial part of running a business, so she sold it.

The young mother had only $34 to her name when her husband left in 1983.  After the separation, she continued to do business with Zevely House and Old Salem out of her home. But now she was out on her own with two children to feed.

Being a single mom with little money to make ends meet, she was more restricted in her recipe choices because if her kids didn’t like it, they wouldn’t eat – and they didn’t have extra food or money to waste.

As Desty began to make more money, she didn’t worry so much about her dinner not turning out. She’d just prepare sometime else – even if nothing but peanut butter sandwiches. She still had fear because they had nothing else to eat. As time went on, Desty began to experience success and finances loosened up a bit, so she was able to experiment more, trying different foods and flavors. The young mother was learning to cook and becoming good at it.

“I wouldn’t cook anything unless it would turn out well because I had to feed my children. I was literally counting every dollar then and couldn’t waste things. I’m not wasteful now.”

Then life began to turn around. Her dream was realized after meeting Don McEwan to whom she’s now married. And it must have been meant to be – as evidenced by the couple’s recent celebration of their 33rd year of marriage.

As a team, the two decided to keep her customers and go back into the business of baking. At that time, she and Don both held full-time jobs in addition to baking.

Desty met her husband while selling him bread for the restaurant Steak and Ale, where he worked as a manager. She had a full-time job working for Salemtown as a baker.

“He invited me on a date, and I said, are you kidding me? It’s Christmastime. I was working the bakery out of my home and thought he must be out of his mind.”

“How about I come up there and help you wash dishes?” Don offered.

“He worked his way up.”

The couple married in 1986. Her daughters, Kara and Kristy, are from her first marriage. Kara is 43, and Kristy is 41, and like their mom, they both are excellent cooks.

“I taught all my children to cook – they helped me in the kitchen and watched. My granddaughter, Jillian, is ten years old, and she loves to work at Mrs. Pumpkins.”

With two big customers, then three, and then four, Desty continued baking out of her home. After realizing they couldn’t do it all themselves, an employee was hired. The couple began to look for a new location after accepting the fact that the business had grown too big for their basement.

“It takes so much money to open a business with everything you have to go through,” she said. It took six months to get the business up and running. After getting started in October 1992, they finally opened on March 6 of 1993 in the same location they’re in now. Mrs. Pumpkins then contracted with Old Salem for baked goods – and that relationship continued for 17 years.

“We started out with baked goods but realized they wouldn’t be enough to sustain the bakery. So we decided to sell lunches – we offered box lunches.”

The packaging offered today was not what was available then, but with their creative idea, a special box was designed so lunch items would be kept separate from the dessert.

The business started making limited frozen foods. Things really took off and began to evolve when they got involved with their church making chicken pies.

“One of the members, Joannie Kate Trawick, told Don that she was going to show him how to make gravy for the chicken pies. He came up with the idea of putting the gravy in the pies, and we started selling them at the church.”

Around that time, their son’s marching band was selling fruit as a fundraiser. The batch of fruit arrived, and all was spoiled. They needed a fundraiser – and quick – so Desty came up with the idea of selling chicken pies. They made and sold around 500 of them. The band director at the high school then decided to sell them, and he sold 1000 chicken pies for the marching band.

“We realized right then that chicken pies had some potential here, but we probably needed to do it differently. We were making them like you make them in your kitchen at home.”

They contacted the agricultural department to get meat and poultry licenses for the business.  After about 6 months of jumping through hoops, they became a federally inspected meat plant to sell chicken pies here and outside North Carolina.

“We had to have that federally inspected seal on them. It was a ton of work, but it’s to protect the consumer. Every time we make chicken pies, there’s an inspector here. You have to be careful cooking with poultry.”

For the consumer, when the pie leaves their kitchen, there’s absolutely no way it isn’t safe.  During the spring, the company makes chicken pies one day a week, but in the fall, they are baking the pies five days out of every week, Monday-Friday.

Desty feels that learning to feed her family and other people using healthy ingredients has greatly influenced her cooking. “We don’t use 100 percent organic, but we are very conscious of the ingredients we use and how our food’s handled. And we never add preservatives to baked goods or our food.”

Growing up, Desty’s family always served delicious food. Her grandparents lived with them and everyone – her mother, father, and grandmother – cooked wonderful meals. During the week, the family sat with one another at a table for dinner. On Saturdays and Sundays, they shared their breakfast and lunch meals.

Growing up in New York, Desty lived on Long Island. There was a lot of farmland, and her family always maintained a fresh garden of zucchini, tomatoes, and corn, while her mother also shopped in-season foods at farm stands.

“My grandmother was the baker, and she taught me how to bake, which I still do.”

It’s pretty amazing that with a few good family recipes in hand and dubbed by her daddy with a seemingly appropriate nickname, “Pumpkin,” a culinary star, Mrs. Pumpkins, was born.

Every night at 7:30, Desty and her husband sit down together to a meal she’s prepared. “We eat at home 28 days out of 30 in a month. We rarely go out for dinner unless for special occasions. I cook every night.”

And she can still be found baking bread at home, a skill she’s passed on to their son, Donnie. Desty shared a proud mom moment with me saying he was baking bread for the homeless while living in San Francisco. That’s a selfless act of which one would truly feel proud.

Another thing Desty really enjoys doing is preparing food ahead of time. She assembles foods that can be made at home and put together – and then frozen and cooked later. “I can have a home cooked meal every night even though I might be short of time. I have a good friend, and we’re learning how best to package food and freeze it so that we can have good, healthy food available every night.”

The foods sold at Mrs. Pumpkins are prepared and already cooked.

“I experiment a lot at home for things I want to sell at the store.”

The big challenge is how to fit everything in a day. She cooks, gardens, volunteers, and works with the extension agency in Stokes County on a worthwhile project. “We’re going to teach people who get food from a food bank how to create healthy meals from that food.”

Don continues to operate the bakery along with his staff while Desty has semi-retired from the business. “I just retired last year at the age of 66 – and I appreciate getting to be at home. I love my home, I love my yard, and I love my garden. I just have a great life. I’m so fortunate.”

But she gives back a lot, too. Desty sings in her church choir and in the Moramus Chorale, a Moravian chorus that sings historic Moravian music.

Mrs. Pumpkins bakes Moravian buns for most of the Moravian churches in Winston-Salem and surrounding counties. This past Christmas, the company baked 2,600 dozen Lovefeast buns. “During the holidays, it smells really good in here,” she said.

Enjoying every minute of what she does, it’s not surprising that cooking’s so satisfying to her or that their business slogan reads, “Wholesome food that warms the soul.”   

A good soul herself, Desty’s often found taking food to people who are sick. The one thing she loves to do most is nurture people, and what better way to care for someone than to feed them? “You can’t really help people except feed them when they’re sick.  I can bring them a little comfort.”

Family owned and operated since 1983, Mrs. Pumpkins is at 3645-B Reynolda Road in Winston-Salem.

Boxed lunches are a great idea for a holiday picnics. Pair a favorite sandwich, wrap, or roll with containers of fresh salads, and a side of refreshing fruit. Add a home baked cookie or dessert bar, and you’ll satisfy everyone’s sweet tooth. Start packing with these tasty recipes.   

CHICKEN SALAD ON CROISSANT

4 lbs. boneless, cooked, chopped chicken breasts

5 ribs chopped celery

1 ½ cup halved, seedless green grapes

1 ½ tsp. dried thyme

1 ½ tsp. garlic powder

3 cups premium mayonnaise

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Freshly baked croissants

Chop cooked chicken into bite-sized pieces. Cut grapes in half. In a bowl, combine chicken, grapes, thyme, garlic, and garlic powder. Add the mayonnaise until desired consistency, and mix well. Serve as a spread on baked croissants.

SHRIMP WRAPS

4 whole wheat soft flour tortillas

1 peeled, chopped avocado

1 lime

6 oz. cooked, peeled shrimp

Bunch of arugula

1 seeded, diced jalapeno chile

½ diced red onion

1diced garlic clove

2 seeded, diced tomatoes

3 Tbsp. sour cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For salsa, mix chile, onion, garlic, tomatoes, and sour cream. Stir well. Heat tortillas in a dry skillet. Remove and lay eat tortilla on a piece of waxed paper. Spread salsa on each tortilla. Top with avocado and sprinkle with lime juice. Lay shrimp and arugula on top. Roll up and wrap tightly in wax paper. Twist ends of the paper to secure. Chill for 1 hour. Slice each roll in half. You can use chicken, beef, or grated fresh vegetables instead of shrimp.

EGG SALAD ROLLS

4 soft whole wheat rolls

Salted butter

Leaves from watercress

4 peeled, chopped hard-boiled eggs

2 Tbsp. mayonnaise

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a bowl, mix eggs and mayonnaise. Season to taste. Cut the rolls in half and spread with butter. Spread egg mixture on bread and top with watercress leaves.

CHICKEN VEGETABLE WRAP

4 soft whole wheat tortillas

4 Tbsp. mayonnaise

2 tsp. whole grain mustard

2 cooked, shredded chicken breasts

A wedge of finely sliced white cabbage

2 diced tomatoes

2 grated carrots

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Lay each tortilla on a sheet of waxed paper. Spread with mayonnaise and mustard. In a mixer, combine the chicken, cabbage, tomatoes, and carrots. Mix well and season to taste. Spread mixture over each tortilla. Roll up tortillas tightly in the wrap paper and twist ends to secure. Cut the wrap diagonally. Wrap each in plastic and refrigerate.

SHOE PEG AND PEA SALAD

16 oz. can drained baby peas

15 oz. drained shoe peg corn

4 oz. drained, chopped pimentos

1 bunch chopped green onions

1 chopped green pepper

1 chopped rib celery

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sugar

1 cup vinegar

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. pepper

In a bowl, combine peas, corn, pimentos, green onion, bell pepper, and celery and mix well. Combine oil, sugar, vinegar, salt, and pepper in a saucepan. Bring to a boil while stirring. Pour the hot mixture over the corn mixture. Mix well. Chill for 8 hours and stir occasionally. Drain before serving.

HERBED TOMATO SALAD

2 pints of fresh cherry tomatoes

1 Tbsp. chopped Italian parsley

3 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil

1 Tbsp. fresh chervil leaves

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 ½ Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the tomatoes into half about 30 minutes before serving, and lay them out on a flat dish.  Drizzle with the oil and vinegar, and salt and pepper. Sprinkle parsley, basil, and chervil over the tomatoes. Let stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Toss all together and add salt and pepper to taste at serving time. Refrigerate.

BROCCOLI SUPREME

1 large bunch fresh broccoli

1 chopped red onion

1 lb. crumbled, crisp bacon

½ cup raisins

1 cup chopped cashews (optional)

1 cup mayonnaise

½ cup sugar

3 Tbsp. cider vinegar

Prepare broccoli by discarding tough stems. Slice remaining stems into bite-size pieces. Separate florets into small portions. In a bowl, combine, broccoli, onion, bacon, raisins, and cashews. In another bowl, combine mayonnaise, sugar, and vinegar and mix well. Add the mayonnaise mixture to the broccoli mixture and toss to coat. Chill for 8 hours.

RED POTATO SALAD

7 unpeeled, cooked, chopped red potatoes

¼ cup chopped green onions

1/3 cup sugar

1 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 tsp. salt

¼ tsp. dry mustard

½ cup milk

¼ cup white vinegar

½ stick salted butter

1 beaten egg

¼ cup mayonnaise

½ tsp. white pepper

In a pot, cover potatoes with water, and boil 15 minutes or until tender. Drain potatoes and toss in green onion. In a saucepan, combine sugar, cornstarch, salt, and dry mustard. Mix well. Stir in milk, vinegar, butter, and egg. Cook over medium heat while stirring until thickened. Remove from heat, and stir in the mayonnaise. Mix in pepper. Add the cooked dressing to the potatoes and toss to coat. Chill for 8 hours.

ARTICHOKE PASTA SALAD

2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

1/3 cup olive oil

1 ½ cup cooked, rinsed, drained pasta

14 oz. drained, chopped artichoke hearts

2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

4 oz. baked ham, ½ -inch (optional)

4 sliced green onions

2 Tbsp. fresh basil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a blender, combine wine vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and process until mixed. Add olive oil in a stream while processing until blended. Cook orzo according to package directions. Combine the orzo, artichokes, cheese, parsley, ham, green onions, and basil in a bowl and mix. Season with salt and pepper. Chile for 8 hours.

SUN-DRIED TOMATO PASTA SALAD

1 pound tortellini pasta

1 pound spiral pasta

½ cup sun-dried tomatoes

1/4 cup olive oil

1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cook all pasta according to directions. Rinse and drain.  In a pot, boil sun-dried tomatoes for 10 minutes until soft. Chop tomatoes in a processor. In a mixer, gently combine pasta, tomatoes, oil, cheese, garlic, salt, and pepper and mix. Chill.

FRESH CUCUMBER AND FETA SALAD

2 large, fresh cucumbers

16 oz. feta cheese

12 sliced scallions

2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill

4 Tbsp. olive oil

2 Tbsp. wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a bowl, crumble the feta and add scallions. Peel cucumber, halve it lengthwise and remove seeds. Slice the remaining cucumber into ½ inch pieces. Add the dill, olive oil, vinegar, and season to taste. Toss gently. Refrigerate.

MACARONI SALAD

8 oz. rotelle pasta

¼ cup milk

1 tsp. chicken bouillon granules

1 Tbsp. hot water

¾ cup salad dressing

¼ cup sour cream

2 seeded, chopped tomatoes

1 chopped green pepper

3 Tbsp. chopped sweet pickle

1/3 cup chopped red onion

2 chopped shallots

1 tsp. fresh dill

¾ tsp. salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Cook pasta according to directions, drain and add milk. Dissolve chicken bouillon in water. In a bowl, combine bouillon, salad dressing, and sour cream. Add pasta and mix well. Fold in pepper, tomatoes, pickle, onion, shallots, and dill. Salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate.

FRESH BEET SALAD

12 trimmed cooked beets

3 Tbsp. olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

2 thinly sliced red onions

½ cup fresh mint

Cook beets in roasting pan with enough water to cover beets. Drizzle with 3 Tbsp. olive oil and salt and pepper. Cover and bake 50 minutes in a 400-degree oven until tender. Transfer to a bowl, and peel when cool.  Cut beets into 1-inch cubes. Add 5 Tbsp. oil, vinegar, onions, and mint. Toss well, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

BALSAMIC STRAWBERRIES

1 pint sliced, fresh strawberries

Oldest, best quality balsamic vinegar

Slice fresh strawberries into halves. Spread out and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar. Toss strawberries to coat.

MARBLED CHEESECAKE BROWNIES

2 cups Oreo-type sandwich cookies

3 Tbsp. melted butter

3 beaten eggs

8 oz. softened cream cheese

14 oz. sweetened condensed milk

2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 oz. melted unsweetened chocolate

Finely crush cookie crumbs and combine with butter. Press on bottom of greased pan. In a mixer, beat eggs. Add cream cheese and beat until fluffy. Add condensed milk and mix well. Fold in vanilla. Pour half the batter over prepared crust. Melt chocolate into remaining batter. Spoon it over vanilla batter. Gently swirl chocolate batter through vanilla batter with a knife to give a marbled appearance. Bake in a 3 x 9 baking pan lined with heavy foil in a 300-degree oven. Bake 45-50 minutes. Cool. Chill for 1 hour. Lift out of the pan with foil and cut into squares. Refrigerate.

RAISIN AND OATMEAL COOKIES

1 beaten egg

¼ cup water

2 tsp. vanilla extract

½ cup sugar

1 cup brown sugar

3 oz. softened salted butter

¾ cup Crisco shortening

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. baking soda

3 cups regular old fashioned oats

½ cup raisins

½ cup pecans

In a mixer, beat egg. Combine vanilla and water with egg. Add sugars. Add butter, and shortening, and mix well.  Combine flour, salt, and baking soda, and combine with butter mixture. Mix well. Fold in oats, raisins, and pecans until thoroughly blended. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 6-8 minutes or until golden.

SUGAR COOKIES

2 beaten eggs

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

2 cups sugar

2 sticks softened, salted butter

4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

¼ tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking powder

In a mixer, beat eggs. Add vanilla, and lemon juice. Then add sugar and butter. Mix well. Combine flour, salt, and baking powder, and then add to butter mixture. Mix well. Roll in a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour. On a floured surface, roll the dough out to 1/8 inch thick and cut into shapes. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet, and refrigerate about 15 minutes. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 8-10 minutes. Sprinkle with large colored sugars.

FRESH RHUBARB TEA

9 stalks of rhubarb

8 cups water

1/3 cup sugar or more

Cut rhubarb into 3-inch lengths. Add to water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for one hour. Strain. Add sugar to taste. Cool. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

FRESH LEMONADE

½ cup boiling water

1 ½ cups sugar

3 tsp. grated lemon rind

1 ½ cups fresh lemon juice

5 cups cold water

Thin lemon slices

Dissolve sugar in boiling water. Stir in lemon rind, juice, and cold water. Refrigerate. Serve with fresh lemon slices in lemonade. Makes 8 cups.