A Love Affair with Figs

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Every Summer of my childhood my mother’s family would rent a beach house in South Carolina for a week-long reunion. This beach trip was by far my most anticipated event of each year rivaling Christmas and my birthday in all aspects. I used to start packing my little vintage pink-satin-lined suitcase with my beanie babies, hairbrush, and essential books about 3 weeks in advance. I  counted down the days on my calendar desperately awaiting our two day drive in the old conversion-van. I loved these trips because I not only got to play at the beach with my cousins, drink root beer floats, and watch cable tv, but I also got to spend time with my parents doing things they loved.  Things like fishing and crabbing in a rented john-boat with my dad, building dribble-sand-castles, watching my mom and her sister be incredibly silly together, the insanely elaborate craft projects that my mother would organize ahead of time and set up for us, and the fresh figs! My parents made friends with an elderly local couple who had retired to Litchfield Beach and lucky for us they had a hedge of giant fig trees lining their property. To our delight they would walk over to our rental beach-house every few days with plastic grocery bags sagging under the weight of a mass of perfectly ripened figs. Freshly picked figs ripen so quickly that they can spoil in just a few hours (even the best figs can go from peak ripeness to fermented garbage overnight). It seemed that our arrival at the beach every year was close to the end of the fig season. I assume that our beach friends had already filled their freezers with figs and had eaten just about all they could stomach, so when we showed up each Summer those precious overflow figs were all ours for the eating. They instructed us to put down a layer of paper towels and then spread the figs out so they weren’t touching. This helps them to keep longer by reducing potential condensation and improving air circulation. It is best to eat them when they are soft to the touch and blushing.

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We would spread them all out and then greedily stuff our faces with the fresh ripe still-warm fruit. I can still recall the smell of that beach house and the taste of those figs. Something about this ritualized food-sharing experience resounded within me as a young child. Maybe it was just how damn-good those figs were. There is truly nothing finer than a piece of tree-ripened fruit kissed by the sun and perfectly picked with a delicate hand. While the skin and flesh of a fig do not have an aroma of their own the tree has a summer-y smell that is, to me, distinct. The leaves are fuzzy with a prickly velvet sort of feel. The flavor of a tree-ripened fig is nearly indescribable. I mentioned before that figs alone have little to no aroma, so the flavor is indeed quite subtle. The only thing I can think to compare to the taste is cane sugar, in that sugar has no smell but it does have an intensely sweet taste, but the flavor is more akin to honey. Figs are by no means as sweet as cane sugar, but the sensual experience is similar. Figs are sweet, sure, but in a much more complex way, not to mention much healthier.

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 The fig and fig leaf have a long and complex historical significance. I remember reading somewhere that they may have actually been the first domesticated food crop, predating even barley. I could go on and bore you with the history of fig-references, and their place in ancient works of literature and art, but instead I’ll save that for later and instead just tell you a bit of a story. [Disclaimer: this paragraph has been edited to correct some historical inaccuracies in my memory of this story.] When I was in 9th grade I had an English teacher who in the midst of an in-depth study of Greek Mythology shared a bit of information with the class regarding the figurative use of the fig leaf and the hand gesture also referred to as “the fig.” She explained that before and during the Renaissance, many artistic mediums, and especially sculpture, celebrated nudity both male and female.  After Christianity spread throughout Europe one eventual effect was a backlash against the nudity this long tradition of art often celebrated. During some time in the early 1500’s, many ancient works of art were edited and censored, due to an increased demand for ideals of modesty. This means paintings were painted over and carved fig leaves were plastered over sculpted genitals. (Why fig leaves? If you can think of a part of a male human’s physical anatomy that might closest resemble the shape of figs, you might be on the right track.) My English teacher  then proposed for us to imagine a fig leaf covering a man’s genitals. Fig leaves have palmate lobes, and thus, depending on the angle of the viewer, there are a few things that possibly might poke out from one or more of the edges (not unlike fresh figs hanging from a tree). The phrase “a fig leaf” is still in use today as a reference to a cover-up, when the viewer knows inherently that something is being concealed, and sees through it. This makes perfect sense considering the historical context of their use in genital-censorship.  As for the hand gesture: imagine that your fist is representative of a fig leaf. The thumb is inside of the fist, sticking out between the index and middle finger. I have attempted to research the origin of this gesture and there are many conflicting results, including allusions to both male or female genitalia, depending on the source. Either way it is certainly indicative of genital nudity, and in that way can be viewed as an obscene gesture. I, of course, loved all of this.

Of course the history of my all-time favorite fruit just so happens to be rife with sexual references and innuendo.

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There are many fig trees around Memphis, Tennessee that I presume were planted by Italian and/or Greek immigrants in the 1920’s and 30’s. I base this conclusion on the relative locations of the trees and their size. Fig trees can be found along older home property lines and around still-standing historical apartment buildings, predating the 1950’s. My apartment building was built in the early 20th century and it has two large fig trees on the lot. One tree in the front and one in the back. There are as few more old Midtown Memphis apartment buildings with fig trees that I have discovered on my morning runs. Staking these trees out and knowing exactly when each should bare ripe fruit for the picking has become a mildly obsessive hobby for me over the last few years. It always surprises me how many people stop and ask me what I am doing, having no idea what I am saying when I respond with, “Picking figs!”

(The dialogue usually continues something like:

Passerby: “What?”

Me: “Figs! *Holds one up, offering it as an example*

Passerby: “Figs? Well what’s that?”

…and it generally continues on like that for some time. )

Though disheartened by the average Memphian’s  lack of knowledge of our urban-foraging fruit availability I try to make it my mission to share figs with all of those people who pass me by. I also inundate my family, friend, and coworkers with freshly picked dry pints and quarts throughout the short season. My favorite thing to do with ripe figs is eat them straight off of the tree but that is not always a practical option. When Memphis figs are in season they ripen quickly and thus need to be preserved or else lost to fermentation and mold. When I have excess ripe figs I love to make a simple fig jam by removing the stems, chopping the figs, and macerating them overnight in a bath of sugar.  Figs are naturally low in acid so it is essential that you compensate by adding lemon juice to ensure that the jam is safe for water-bath canning. I like to keep my fig jam simple to highlight the subtle fig flavor so I just add lemon juice to the mixture right before cooking it down in my trusty 12″ stainless steel skillet. Served as a topping for a baked brie, my “Memphis Fig Jam” has received rave reviews. I can also recommend slathering some on sourdough toast, adding a layer of jam and fresh basil to a grilled cheese, mixing some jam with a bit of light vinegar for a glaze for roasted meat, or just eating it with a spoon out of the jar paired with alternate spoonfuls of whole-fat ricotta.  I will be sharing my favorite fig jam recipes as soon as Simon and I get around to staging a jam and canning photo-shoot. Until then, I hope this post had whet your appetite (for figs, I mean, obviously).

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-Ali

Fig-Styling by Ali Rohrbacher

Photos by Simon Hua, 2016

One Comment Add yours

  1. Dan Spector says:

    Your photographs are gorgeous. How about pictures of fig leaves, and of fig trees? I was just given a big bag of frozen figs, as they do go bad so quick. The main biblical reference is how every man should live beneath his own vine and fig tree.
    Classical (Greco-Roman) art is full of male nudity while Christianity was all about extreme modesty. It was only during the Renaissance that people decided nudes had beauty. Then came a backlash of modesty.. and so it goes.

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