in which for no reason other than pure whimsy and succulence itself, we behold the fig—to my taste, the essence of autumn, and the finest fruit borne from the boughs of any earthly tree….
few are the foods for which i churn an honest-to-goodness hankering. foods that might wake me up in the night, and turn my tummy to growling. the fig of october is one such specimen. i am not one to dream of cakes, couldn’t care less for a mousse, and turn up my nose at anything chocolate (yes, yes, i count these among my mis-wirings). and while there are foods aplenty that i eat day after day—broccoli, apples, nonfat greek yogurt, frozen bananas (the banal list of a thoroughly unadventurous eater)—rare is the edible that stirs me from stupor or slumber, yearning to nibble. (midway through wednesday’s yom kippur fast, and deep in my recent string of high-fevered days, i found myself longing for even one succulent fig. and that’s when i knew i needed to compose a commonplace ode to the Ficus carica, a fruit ancient and timeless.)
yes, rare is the fig, which i pile on my plate but for one short season a year. well before we get to its taste, the way it melts across the tongue and glides down the gulch with a honeyed-sweetness all along the way, i find the fig a mouthwateringly beautiful object, a bulbous aubergine orb, streaked with brushstrokes of plum and sienna. and that’s only the outside.
to split the fig from its umbilical nub into quarters is to expose its sumptuous flesh, densely seeded, nearly R-rated. it’s no wonder renaissance painters often found ways to tuck a fig into the frame (almost a where’s waldo of painterly fruits). inside or out, it’s summa botanica.
it’s a fruit at the root of all the world’s religions. did not adam and eve reach for the leaf of the fig the very instant they realized their nakedness? the original pasties, i suppose. even now, the fig leaf is the very symbol of flimsy modesty, of shabbily covering that which shames or embarrasses but which is more or less in plain sight anyway. hardly shamefully, the fig was the tree that shaded Siddhartha Guatama for the 49 days during which he enlightened his way toward becoming the Buddha. his fig tree was the Bo, or Bodhi—Ficus religiosa, a species known to grow ninety feet tall and live for two thousand years, and whose leaves are shaped like hearts.
for the more than the nine thousand years the fig has heavied boughs in the global garden, it’s been considered a “keystone species,” one critical to the survival of a disproportionately large chunk of an ecosystem, and without which that ecosystem would be drastically changed. no fewer than twelve hundred different kinds of animals depend on figs, including one-tenth of the world’s birds, and, yes, a certain wasp that takes its name from the fleshy fruit, the diminutive fig wasp.
you might be surprised to know that figs are actually inside-out flowers, hundreds of flowers trapped inside that aubergine casing. and if perhaps, as a young child, you were scared off from figs because someone told you that if you bit into it you’d be biting into a dead wasp wedged inside, here’s the real story:
the female fig wasp, dusted with pollen from her own birth inside yet another fig, wriggles her way into an unripe fig by way of the opening at the round base, called the ostiole, whereby stripping off her wings in the process. (imagine a piling of itty-bitty diaphanous wasp wings there at the base of every wild fig tree.) she is a wee waspy thing—roughly the size of the tip of a pencil or crayon (an aubergine crayon perhaps, from the original 64-color crayolas that stand as pert bright-colored soldiers all in their rows)—and she lives for only two days, during which she is duty- and DNA-bound to safely penetrate the fig and lay her eggs among the tiny flowers, thus pollinating the flowers. she dies shortly after. (fear not, the enzymes of the fruit dissolve what’s left of the wee wasp; and fear even less because nearly all figs you might find in the fruit bin these days have been domestically produced, and are not of the wild waspy variety.) of the juice left behind, post waspiness, pliny the elder termed it “the best food that can be taken by those who are brought low by long sickness.” (case in point: my febrile hankering.)
figs, it’s been said, are “extra, full of drama.” cleopatra, it’s told, ordered that the Egyptian cobra she intended as her suicide weapon, be brought to her hidden in a basket of figs. alexander the great claimed that ten thousand of his soldiers sheltered under a single fig tree. and d.h. lawrence, whom i never knew was something of a raunchy ol’ fellow, compared an overripe “bursten” fig to a prostitute “making a show of her secret.”
here’s the poem where he plays with that…
the first few lines of his 1924 poem, titled simply, “figs”…(and said to be confirmation of why this man of letters was considered one of the most risqué writers of his time…)
The proper way to eat a fig, in society
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist,
honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.
Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.
But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack and take out the flesh in one bite.
Every fruit has its secret.
now i’ve not ever considered the fig in a trollopian way, though i can see how its sweet succulence might push it toward the precipice of such considerations.
while my one and only way to eat a fig is straight-up; rinsed, quartered to reveal its “bursten”-ness, speared with tine of fork, and inhaled in a single shwoop, you might take your figs more encumbered, or rather baked into something beyond deliciousness. if you’re of the latter class, here’s an almond and fig cake for you….
almond and fig cake
from mrs. larkin’s kitchen on food52
8 – 10 small ripe figs, stems removed, sliced in half vertically
3/4 cups slivered blanched almonds
1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling on top of batter
zest of 1/2 large orange
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
*Set oven rack to upper third. Preheat oven to 400 F. Butter an 8″ cake pan and line with parchment paper.
*Process almonds, 2 Tablespoons of sugar and orange zest until finely ground.
*Beat butter and remaining sugar together at high speed until pale and fluffy. Add vanilla and combine. Add eggs, beating well after each addition. On low speed, beat in the almonds, flour and salt.
*Spread batter in cake pan. Place fig halves in concentric circles, evenly spaced, over the batter. Press in slightly. Sprinkle some sugar (about 2 tablespoons) over the entire surface. Bake on a sheet pan until cake is firm and nicely golden brown with darker edges, about 25 minutes.
*Cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Invert cake onto a dish, remove parchment, and re-invert onto a serving plate.
what might be the fruits that lure you to the fridge (or the tree) in the deep of the night, or the heat of the day??? and how do you like them best?
with a little poking around, i found the taste of the fig described thusly, as if a high-end wine assayed by a fine-palated sommelier: NPR describes its “honey-like sweetness with a subtle hint of berry and fresher shades of the flavor you might recognize from a certain cookie.” a restaurateur says figs taste something like a “berry dipped in a honey glaze.” one poet wrote that the taste of a perfect fig “cuts straight through time.” how might you describe it?
p.s. i am, i believe, cured from whatever the heck ailed me for six straight days. whatever it was, it wasn’t covid, and it was nasty. but it’s history now, and the month of october awaits….