We sat sequestered in the Sunday School room of the Charlemont Federated Church, three of us, twenty-seven glorious puddings set on the Sunday School tables, which had been covered with bright red and yellow Provincial table cloths for the occasion. For almost two hours, the puddings had been carried in through a light rain, cradled like newborns, the dishes, which ranged from elegant to earthy, cloaked in dishcloths or tin foil or snugged into Tupperware.
Many entries came from the nearby town of Hawley but some came from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont — this contest has legs! As they arrived, one after the other, the little room, which had been cleared of its scissors and library paste, Sunday School texts and crayons, filled with the smell of cinnamon, pumpkin, raspberries, vanilla — too many fragrances to totally identify. It all came down to: mouth watering.
We had come to judge the annual pudding contest, the heart of the Pudding Hollow Pudding Festival, the brainchild of Tinky Weisblat, a creative and humorous being about whom I wrote in the March/April 2009 issue of Yankee, The Queen of Pudding.
As a result of that article, Tinky asked me to return this year to be a judge of her famous contest. (The contest began in Pudding Hollow in the nearby town of Hawley, where Tinky lives, but it had become so popular, they had moved it to this bigger venue.)
The other judges there with me were Kathleen Wall, an official “culinarian” at Plimouth Plantation — she has judged the puddings for four years in a row so she had a decided mastery of the subject and of the process — and Michaelangelo Westcott, who runs a “French-inspired Bistro” called Gypsy Apple in nearby Shelburne Falls (everyone spoke of his establishment with reverence. I intend to try it next time I am in that area).
Michaelangelo arrived a bit late, having had trouble finding a parking spot in downtown Charlemont, which was buzzing with activity on this day of the Puddings. He entered as if from his own kitchen, dressed in his white chef’s coat, his name smartly embroidered on the pocket and, on his head, an interesting black cap, all if which served to give him a natty and professional appearance. In any case, he and I were both new to the puddings, new to the process, so we followed Kathleen’s charge in every way.
There were two categories, sweet and savory — all but five were sweet so the savory category seemed like the logical place to start our tasting. There were many pumpkin creations, the many entries making their own category, and she recommended ending with the chocolate entries since, “Once you taste the chocolate, that’s it for the rest of the day.” We nodded sagely.
Paper plates and spoons were distributed. The puddings stood smartly before us, an array of temptation — some in earthenware pots, some in crystal bowls, some in chafing dishes, some with their own bowl of whipped cream or secret sauce alongside. Each had a name: Cranberry Cover-up, Fruit of the Earth, Haddie-Leakie Bread Pudding, Three Fruit Cold but Cheerful Pudding, Persimmon Pudding, Shaker Rock Cream Pudding, Harvest Delight.
News photographers’ cameras flashed at us as we sank our spoons into the first of the day’s puddings, a savory entitled Indian Coconut Almond Rice Pudding, a dense and interesting mix of all those flavors. We loved it but did not end up giving it an award. There were so many puddings yet to sample.
The time flew by as we paced ourselves, clearing our palettes with water sipped between puddings. Tinky or another of her Festival volunteers frequently opened our closed door to see if we needed anything, then, as the time went on, to see if we had, ahem, come to any conclusions. But we had fourteen more puddings to go! It was the essence of too much of a good thing. No time to flag — the Festival awaited our decisions.
Outside our chambers, the townfolk were enjoying a big meal of ham and beans and fried potatoes. We could hear the din of their merriment. When we were finished, there would be the Great Pudding Parade and then the Award Ceremony. We toiled on, tasting, deliberating, straining to discern the spices within, whether this was homemade cake or Duncan Hines, what on earth this texture was. Is that coconut? Good heavens, do I taste bacon?? And so on.
It had all sounded like fun when I was invited but it was turning into a monumental task. Daunting, in fact. Finally, we had our list — best presentation, spookiest (it was Halloween, after all), best pumpkin pudding, most original, fifteen prizes in all, and, for the best all around, the Pudding Head Award. We consulted our pudding-stained notepads.
After three hours of deliberation, the judges were ready. The three of us had no trouble deciding that the Pumpkin Gingerbread Pudding was the best pudding, hands down. “I could eat a lot of that,” Michaelangelo had declared lustily and Kathleen and I said we sure could too. We almost did. Just the thought of it now makes me hungry.
It was much harder to decide about all the others. We opened the door and exited our chamber. The cooks entered to retrieve their creations and then lined up, proudly bearing their puddings, some holding them aloft, and marched them into the sanctuary of the church, down the aisle and up to the altar, where a large table had been set up to display the puddings vying for a prize.
A skit, songs, laughter, the cozy feeling of a town that holds together and finally, the awarding of the prizes and the crowning of the Pudding Head — it all flowed as the three of us sat in the back holding our heads and our stomachs, starting into recovery from Pudding Overdose.
After the awards had been announced and the prizes bestowed(a food processor from Cuisinart, a baking set from Calphalon), the townspeople came forward for the ritual sampling of the puddings. Everyone eagerly lined up in the aisle to go forward to the altar and partake of the Exalted Puddings. They helped themselves, so many to choose from, and returned to their pews with their plates. A very special kind of communion on a rainy fall day in the Berkshires.