I was about 6 years old, living in a very small Southern town, when I met my first kumquat. My grandmother had received a lavish fruit basket, a gift from my uncle, who lived in a big city. The basket was a work of art. Clumps of dark-purple grapes nestled among perfectly shaped oranges, grapefruits, and apples. I noticed a small bunch of dark-green leaves with walnut-size golden fruit attached. "What're those?" I asked.
My grandmother's answer delighted me. Even at that age, I loved words, and the word she pronounced was an entirely new and exotic species. "Kumquats," she said. And plucking one off the stem, she handed it to me. "You eat the whole thing, peel and all."
I popped it into my mouth and sank my teeth into the soft peel and flesh. I squealed with delight. The peel was sweet; the fruit inside was tart. The combination set off a taste-bud explosion, an unexpected sensation created by something that could be one thing and another at the same time. I'd have eaten the whole bunch, if she had let me.
Many years later, as my husband and I prepared to move to Florida, I told him, "I'm going to plant an orange tree."
Last spring we visited a big nursery and looked at citrus trees. In my native South Carolina, no one grew oranges, lemons, limes, or grapefruit.
As we wandered along, selecting trees to plant, I encountered my childhood head-on. There, alongside the grapefruit trees, was a kumquat tree. Several small dark-green fruits had already formed. Among shiny green leaves were delicate white flowers, with a sweet scent similar to orange blossoms. This was good. I knew the tree was pollinated.
I decided right then that I'd become a grower of kumquats rather than oranges. After all, orange trees are a Florida landscape fixture. But I hadn't encountered a kumquat tree.
We took it home and planted it. As summer waned, I wanted to know more. Where did kumquats originate? Could I use them in recipes?
I searched the Internet and found the website of Kumquat Growers Inc. The president, Frank Gude, told me that kumquats are believed to be native to China. There are nine commercial growers in Florida, so the US industry is small. Only about 45 acres are devoted to cultivation.
The site noted that the most common variety is the Nagami, an oval fruit that can be eaten "as is" or used to make excellent pies, cakes, and jams.
I asked Mr. Gude why people don't grow more kumquats. They're more work than oranges, he said, because they're harvested over several months. "People get tired of it. Oranges are harvested all at one time."
I eagerly shared my kumquat acquisition tale with him, and he recommended hosing my tree down with a forceful stream of water every now and then. This helps keep pests down.
A gardening enthusiast I know says you can even grow kumquats in a container indoors, as long as the room is very sunny and you pollinate the blossoms by hand.
I spoke to Gude in early August when my tree was loaded with fruit. I explained to him that this was the time I'd planned to bake pies and cakes for my family. He asked which variety of kumquat i had. I told him the label on my tree says it's a Meiwa.
He explained that Meiwas don't "get good" until around the first part of January. They have to be completely ripe. That's why we mostly see the Nagami variety, harvested beginning in November, in the produce section of grocery stores.
For baking, I'll have to purchase some Nagamis. The Meiwas, sweeter than the Nagamis, are best eaten whole and aren't recommended for cooking. But I can use my harvest in salads and as garnishes: I'm thinking of a delicate pear salad, resting on a bed of greens, surrounded by walnuts with thinly sliced Meiwas around the edge, for example.
I had actually sampled my first homegrown, pale-orange kumquat a week before I talked to Gude and learned that I still had a few months to go before harvest.
My daughters watched. I'd told them the story of my introduction to kumquats and how surprised and delighted I was the first time I ate one. Watching me sample the unripe Meiwa, and the subsequent expression on my face, both girls graciously declined to try a slice.
I expanded my childhood story by explaining that a kumquat was quite exotic to a small-town girl. "After all," I reflected, "we didn't even have pizza parlors or color television when I was growing up – and no air conditioning, either."
"Poor Mom," said my younger daughter.
Smiling wisely I replied, "No, fortunate me."