Figs: Marion Changes her Mind

I think it must have been the third grade. A classmate traded me a Mother’s brand “taffy” sandwich cookie from my lunchbox for a Fig Newton. I’d seen Fig Newtons advertised on TV (or at least, that’s how I remember it). I bit into it. It had warmed through, was kind of mushy, and the filling was gluey and overly sweet with an unpleasant aftertaste. The aroma was cloying, too. I swallowed one bite and when we headed back into class I threw the rest of the cookie away.

That decided me. I didn’t like figs.

We didn’t grow figs. My dad planted many fruit trees in our half-acre yard and grafted other varieties onto sturdy trees. We had apples and all kinds of plums. I don’t think I’d seen a fig tree in real life until I went to a work party at our local apostolic center (which was what the Catholic Church called small churches in the 1970s, I think) to help clear out the unimproved acreage behind the one-story cinderblock building.

I helped pull weeds and tear out yards and yards of some kind of wild weedlike creeper. We uncovered a family of stunted grapevines. Father Don made an obligatory priest joke about wine. Farther back, next to a nearly-collapsed three-walled shed with a caved-in roof of curling asbestos shingles, a gnarled tree with a corrugated, split truck and twisted branches hunched over like something from a 1960s horror movie—no, seriously, that movie about a man who turns into a tree when he’s murdered by his unfaithful fiancé and her new squeeze, and who lurches around in tree form and finally throws her into some quicksand. I’m pretty sure it’s a real movie—anyway, the tree looked like that. Yellow jackets swarmed it in a Danger Zone hum, drawn to the bursting purple-green fruit littering the ground around it and clinging to the desiccated branches.

It was a fig tree. It didn’t do anything to change my third-grade opinion of the fruit.

(Writing this, I looked at some fig tree images, and none seem quite as tortured as my church’s tree. I wonder if that means anything.)

I can, however, take in new information, and change my opinion on things.

Figs show up in a lot of fiction, often as food of decadence and seduction, and equally often in fantasy and historical fiction, food of the common people, especially with books set in a Mediterranean setting. Figs, almonds and olives show up a lot, and with good reason. Concoctions of figs—fig preserves, fig syrup and fig-infused balsamic vinegar—show up everywhere in life, not just in fiction.

A few decades after I saw the tree, I was eating out with some friends and one ordered a fig and prosciutto starter. She offered me one. I was unsure, but now that I was an adult, I remembered that I didn’t have to eat all of something if I didn’t like it. I took it. It wasn’t anything like a Fig Newton with prosciutto. It was a lot of things, all of them wonderful.

The fig was ripe. First of all, I don’t think I’d realized before that figs—these were black mission figs—are lovely. Their shape reminds me of the “gondolier” hot-air balloons, rounded teardrops. A slightly rippled skin is purple, sometimes with the faint silver haze that Santa Rosa plums also get. They come down to a soft point. Inside, the flesh near the rind is pale green, with a core of small seeds and a mauve colored center, that looks like a satellite image of a powerful river delta… or maybe a mosaic somewhere. The smell is sweet, earthy, and, well, for lack of a better description, distinctly figlike. The scent of a ripe fig is so distinctive that I will use it as the benchmark for other things, comparing them to figs, instead of the reverse.

To describe the bite I will use up all my “foody” words; the flesh is silken, the “mouth-feel” unctuous. To be fair, the salty prosciutto balanced the earthy sweetness of the fruit. But, still.

I decided I’d been unfair to figs.

I still don’t have figs often. My favorite way to serve them, other then rinsing one, cutting it in half lengthwise and just eating it, is to dab a bit of goat cheese in the center. But then, I really like goat cheese. I get them about twice a year at the farmers market, after stopping to admire their plump-bob shape and the rippled, purple skin.

I have changed my mind. This historic, succulent fruit is not to be judged by a stale cookie. It stands on its own, and it’s yummy.

This entry was posted in Ruminations and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Figs: Marion Changes her Mind

  1. Thanks for reminding me of one of the foods that, growing up in Northern California, I viewed as No Big Thing, just part of the normal menu, and was amazed to learn that people in other parts of the country saw as strange and exotic: artichokes, avocados, figs, abalone, and those astonishing peaches my grandfather called “Indian Reds.”

  2. Terry says:

    This story is funny, yet it also speaks to how our first impressions can be changed with the passing of time and having an open mind.

  3. Marion says:

    Terry, I think “Don’t Judge a Fig by a Fig Newton” could be a T-shirt slogan.

  4. Marion says:

    We’re so lucky in California to have the range of quality foods that we have, Marta!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *