At Home With Vivian: Figs

“Have some figs! My trees are loaded” my friend Gloria Morales offered during “donuts and coffee” after mass at St. Catherine’s last week. I never turn down a fresh fig and hers were delicious. She said she planted a fig tree and the squirrels helped her plant two more. With three fig trees, Gloria was happy to share with the congregation.

I didn’t know what an actual fig looked like until I was a teenager. My only exposure up until then were Fig Newton cookies. If you were desperate for a cookie, a Fig Newton would suffice. Definitely not my favorite cookie back in the day. If you were going to eat a cookie, why would you choose a healthy one? Snickerdoodles were more to my liking.

My first encounter with a real fig came a couple of years after we moved to Antioch. Our backyard was tiny, just barely big enough to support the apricot tree that grew in the middle of a patch of lawn. The yard was fenced on the three sides adjoining our neighbors. One day, while my mom, kid sister and I were out pulling weeds and mowing our miniscule lawn, my mother noticed a new tree peeping over the top of the back fence. Mama, who was always a little too nosey, got up on her 5’1” tippy toes and peeked over the fence. “It’s a fig tree.” she announced.

The following year, that fig tree grew tall enough to send a short branch over the fence into our yard. It sprouted one green pear-shaped object hanging from it. Mom checked on that fig nearly every day. Once it turned purple, she gently squeezed it to see if it was soft and ripe. One September evening after she got home from work, she called Johnette and me out to the backyard. She took the fruit in her hand and showed us the proper color of a ripe one. Then she let us feel the softness of the fig’s body. With a flick of the wrist the pod came off in her hand. Gently, she took the fig stem and peeled down to the bottom. She peeled until a rough white fruit, with just a hint of pink seed poking out, lay in her hand.

It was a strange looking thing Johnette and me. Mom offered us a bite. We declined. She said “Good!” and popped the whole thing in her mouth. Her eyes widened and she went “Mmmm…. Mmmm!” She made me think I should have tried it.

The following year the tree grew taller and sent several branches reached over the fence into our yard. Mom and I watched the figs growing purple with much anticipation. Finally, the day came again when the figs were deemed ripe enough to pick. Mom picked one for me and one for Johnette. We three peeled away the skins. Those figs were marvelous! Then I picked one I thought was ripe and discovered why some people do not like figs. If they are not quite ready, eating a fig feels like getting a mouth full of gritty sand.

Every year after that we made plans to cook with the figs, but we never had enough figs to make fig jelly, fig custard, or home-made Fig Newtons. There were plenty of figs. We didn’t have enough to cook because every day after school Johnette and I went into the backyard for an afternoon snack. I stood in the backyard and peeled away. Johnette had her own method of eating figs. To this day she splits them open and scrapes out the insides with her teeth like she was eating an artichoke. “Peeling takes too long” she reports.

I asked my kids what they knew about figs. “I remember you picking one off the tree and showing me how to peel it. I realized I’d never even wondered what the “fig” was in Fig Newtons,” Marion recalled.

The only drawback to having a fig tree is that they are messy. The ground under the tree where the fruit drops is always a hazard. Our lawn was squishy from splattered fruit and the grass crawled with hungry ants. And “You have to remember to check each fig for pincher bugs (earwigs) before you bite into a fig fresh off the tree,” Johnette reminded me.

My older sister Brenda said that our neighbors in West Pittsburg back in the 1950s had a fig tree and their driveway was always an appetite suppressing mess. “Isn’t it funny how Impressions from your childhood follow you through life? I don’t remember why I don’t like figs. I wonder if I’d like them now,” Brenda mused. The only figs she remembered liking were Fig Newtons.

Fig trees can be very messy indeed. I had taught at Will C. Wood High School in Vacaville for three years before venturing out to the furthest reaches of our campus. Because our school was over crowded with students, portable classrooms were brought in and parked out on an athletic field. On a teacher work day before school was to start in the fall, I walked out to one of the portables to talk to another teacher. As I came around the backside of the gym, I discovered a fig tree laden with fruit about to ripen. As a Home Economics teacher with a scant budget, I saw gold. “By this time next week, the tree will be ready to harvest!” I gleefully thought to myself. I had visions of home-made Fig Newtons dancing in my head. I didn’t mention the tree to any of the other teachers. It was my prize to take.

After school a week later, I walked back out to the tree with a sturdy tote bag and a couple of boxes. Even if they weren’t quite ripe, my recipe said they would work. I came around the corner of the gym and stopped short.

The tree was empty. Not one fig was left. They were all on the ground, smooshed. And what wasn’t on the ground was splattered on the walls. What a mess!! One of our school custodians came by while I was standing there gawking at the mess. “Happens every year” he said. “Freshman boys and ripe fruit are a bad combination.”

The following year I was determined to get the fruit before the kids did. At the end of our teacher work day I went to pay homage to the fig tree. It was amazing! The tree was full of fruit and it was ready to be picked. Once again, I had Fig Newtons dancing in my head.

I hiked out to the “back 40” to get my figs the day before school was to start. There were no cars in the parking lot. It was quiet. It was going to be a great harvest day. I walked around the back of the gym and froze. Lo and behold, not only were all of the figs gone, so was the tree.

As I was to learn later, a new custodian was warned about the mess that was going to happen with the fig tree. He simply asked “Why do we need a fig tree?” That’s all it took. My tree was cut down in the prime of its life. Ah well. Life goes on.

But thanks to Gloria, home-made Fig Newtons are once again dancing in my head. Gloria, I’ll need two pints of figs next week….

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