Every year when the calendar rolls up against the Dade City Kumquat Festival, I can’t help thinking about a scene from “Doc Hollywood” — the Michael J. Fox movie in which an aspiring Beverly Hills plastic surgeon gets waylaid in tiny Grady, South Carolina (played convincingly by Micanopy, just up the road).
While he’s there waiting for repairs to his wrecked Porsche and serving community service hours in the local hospital, preparations are underway for the local Squash Festival, which prompts a rumination on timing by the mayor (David Ogden Stiers).
It seems the zucchini and the Grady squash were locked in a battle over which would be the nation’s preeminent gourd when a shipment of the town’s signature crop was swept away by a tornado that was otherwise “bound for … agricultural stardom at the  Chicago World’s Fair.”
“If it had gone the other way,” the mayor says, “there’s no telling where this town would be today.”
The parallel is not exact, but when it comes to festivals surrounding local harvests, and towns that are making the most of close calls, I can’t help thinking about kumquats and Dade City. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, except that kumquats are not, to choose one regional delicacy, strawberries. Nor are they tangerines or oranges — although all these and kumquats are related taxonomically.
Generally, however, humans do not have to work their way up to strawberries or tangerines or oranges. Each can be enhanced, of course, and often are, but each also, when ripe, is tasty right off the bush or branch. Fresh-picked kumquats, however, are an acquired taste.
Yes, you’d say, and so are Spanish olives, champagne, golf and PBS’ “Masterpiece Classics.” And, I would not disagree. Each requires a mature palate, and rewards the effort.
But, in my experience, bright little kumquats, so lovely in aspect and mesmerizing in fragrance, will flat out produce a three-day pucker when eaten fresh-picked.
Yes, even if you follow, precisely, the recommended regimen, rolling the fruit firmly between your thumb and forefinger to release the sweet oil in the skin before popping the whole thing, grape-like, in your mouth, you will wind up resembling someone eager to be kissed.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Still, the resolute tartness of kumquat pulp makes the little fruits conveyances for the delivery of sugar, the more the better.
So, part of me can never anticipate the Kumquat Festival without wondering, like the Grady mayor, how the arc of Dade City’s history would have bent if it had been Florida’s first to celebrate the subtly sweet temple orange, the easily peeled and delicate tangerine, or even the bold pink grapefruit.
But, no. Instead, The Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce decided to organize a festival in its honor. And, they have it on the last Saturday in January — the same day as Tampa’s annual Gasparilla pirate invasion.
A challenging date for a challenging fruit. Because that’s how Dade City, the little town that can, rolls.
If you were there last weekend, you may have discovered that once they have submitted to the culinary expert’s machinations, kumquat-centered dishes can be exquisite.
And so, we turn to the Skip Mize, the longtime kitchen boss at Williams Lunch on Limoges, who advises us at the top, kumquat season at his popular Seventh Street eatery is fleeting.
This has more to do with preparation, which is labor intensive, than harvest season, which extends from November through March.
“There are some things you get to eat only at Thanksgiving, and some things you get to eat only at Christmas,” Mize says, “and some things you get to eat only around the Kumquat Festival. It’s tradition.”
For Mize’s kitchen, that tradition extends “only about two weeks, two-and-a-half weeks, tops.” But, what a season it is. His ambitious menu abounds with dishes featuring kumquats in various forms: sauced, jellied, jammed, candied and glazed; kumquats reduced, through repeated boiling, to simple syrup; and, ladled onto pork, chicken or salmon, kumquat chutney.
Similarly, on festival day itself, nearby Kafe Kokopelli always features kumquats in various forms, infused into everything from appetizers and cocktails — kumquat sangria sounds zesty — to entrees (who’s up for kumquat meatloaf?).
Without a gate admission, organizers say it’s impossible to know how many people attend the festival in any given year, but with roughly tens of thousands each year, it’s fair to say the crowd is substantially more than turned out for the Grady Squash Festival.
Then again, the movie had a happy ending: The doc got the gal; the town got the doc; the mayor, presumably, went on to many reelection landslides.
It’s a similar joy that descends, each year, on Dade City as a result of its embrace of its tart natural treasure.
(Published February 1, 2017)