If there is one thing near and dear to our hearts here at The Long Fork, it’s figs.
Growing up, there were no fresh figs at the stores, yet they were a normal part of my life. When it was late summer, I ate figs picked right off the tree in my backyard. We would have a bowl of freshly washed figs by the sink or on the table. Some days there were just a few and others, the bowl was overflowing. At times I would walk a few blocks over to my dear Aunt Mary’s house to share the wealth. Others in my family loved them too, like my younger cousin Ann-Marie, until she found one with ants inside. That also happened to me but I still ate them; I just delicately tore the figs in two first, exposing the insides and any unwanted friends. Neighborhood families preserved figs into jam for holiday cookie baking later in the year. Protected from the cold, burlap- and plastic-wrapped trees peeking out of backyards were a normal part of the winter landscape.
The first time it dawned on me that figs might have been more special than I knew was years ago, when I was in my early twenties, working in the city. A menu was passed around for our lunch order from a Chelsea restaurant with “fig” in the name. The salad I chose arrived looking beautiful: It had a mixture of lovely fresh greens, wheels of herb-crusted goat cheese, homemade raspberry dressing, and either roasted hazelnuts or walnuts, I can’t remember anymore. But, what I will never forget were the eagerly anticipated figs. They were dried! I suppose I had wrongly assumed that a restaurant that named itself after the fig would have procured fresh beauties for its menu, or at the very least say otherwise. No matter how tasty the rest of the salad was, there was still much disappointment. I like dried figs but adore fresh ones. It was during that meal that I started to truly recognize and appreciate my heritage and the traditions passed down.
My ancestors weren’t the only people with a strong love for the precious fruit; and whether you are the first generation living in the US or have a distant relative hailing from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, or Asia, you might have strong fig love in your bloodline as well. Lucky for all of us, commercial growers have successfully met the challenge for supply and demand. So now you can not only purchase figs in grocery stores during the season, but you can even get them in the beginning of the summer shipped from other areas. I will tell you that NOTHING is as good as eating a fig picked fresh off the tree, but store fresh is the next best thing. More Americans are familiar with fresh figs now as opposed to years ago when they knew of the fruit only from a popular pre-packaged cookie.
My father has several trees, and one, his first one, a Mission fig tree, is truly mammoth. It was grown from a branch my mom’s Great-Aunt Lizzie gave to them. We believe it came from a cutting of a tree that she planted in Brooklyn, that originally had migrated with her generations ago from Italy. He has other varieties too, some from his brother who also has a green thumb. Once you get the knack for growing figs, it can be quite rewarding. My dad has acquired an allergy to the sap of the fig tree (which isn’t that uncommon), but he continues to tend to his trees. From time to time he will even propagate a new tree from one of his more established ones and gift it to an admiring fig enthusiast when it’s stable enough to leave his care.
This year was not a good harvest for most of us backyard gardeners here on Long Island. The roots sent up new growth, but the developed branches didn’t make it. The winter was harsh. With little to no fruit, what is one to do other than admire the big magnificent leaves that adorn them?
My mom recently heard about a way to make a soft cheese with the help of a fig leaf. So she enlisted my niece and nephew in trying a culinary experiment. The leaves were picked early in the morning because it was said that the composition of the milky substance, the sap within the leaf, is at its sweetest then. They heated whole milk in a pot on the stove, all the while stirring it with the stem of a fig leaf. Eventually, it got thicker, and curds appeared and started to separate from the whey. A loose cheese took form. Not being cheese experts, they simply scooped the curds out into a bowl. With a playful reluctance they tried their creation—it more than passed the muster. I can attest (thankfully, they saved some for me) it was deliciously creamy with a hint of sweetness. Not a note of feared bitterness. The fig cheese was a hit! The whole experience was so easy that it will definitely be repeated again.
My history with figs might seem common to many. Like other Long Forkers, maybe you too remember playing outside on a hot summer day picking a fig or two (or three) off a tree at your grandparents’ house and eating freely. Perhaps you’ve been the recipient of figs from your neighbor who insists on sharing the fig love. Maybe your first experience of a fresh fig was at a party where figs were lusciously wrapped in bacon or topped with goat cheese, a rosemary balsamic glaze, and candied pecans. Or maybe, a long time ago, you were the one that migrated with a branch in tow. Whatever your introduction, we are all from the same family, for we have fig love running through our veins.