Figs are among the oldest of food trees to be cultivated for human use.
Sadly, many humans these days don’t seem as jazzed about figs as I am. Perhaps my passion for the fruit comes from a Mediterranean childhood, since figs are certainly popular in that part of the world. I just don’t seen what’s not to love about figs, fresh or dried, and that’s why I was stoked to see figs on sale at Harvest the other day. Naturally, I had to squeal “figs!” and pick out a hefty assortment, which I have been grazing on over the last few days.
In addition to being ancient, figs also happen to be really interesting. Did you know that they are actually inverted flowers, pollinated by a special kind of wasp which actually gets trapped inside the flower, so every time you eat a fig you are eating a wasp too? Given that there are hundreds if not thousands of fig species around the world, it’s even more amazing that each fig has a specific type of wasp which appears to evolve in tandem with it. Not only that, but figs are actually gendered trees; caprifigs bear inedible but fertile fruits, while smyrnas and san pedros need caprifigs to produce viable fruit. Common figs, another type, are able to self pollinate, but they still need the wasps to do it. As humans have brought the unique trees with them through their travels, they have developed new breeds of insects along with new cultivars of figs. Nifty, eh?
I’m mainly telling you this because I think that the botany behind figs is really intriguing, and it illustrates how astonishing nature can be sometimes. My passion for figs may be split in equal parts between their bizarre reproductive habits, their seductively sweet and luscious flavor, and their long respected place in literature.
Given that figs are so ancient, it should come as no surprise that they pop up regularly in human literature and mythology. There’s something strangely captivating and little bit erotic about figs, and this property is often referenced in works of art and literature about figs.
When you pick up a fresh fig, it’s smooth with a hint of velvet, rounded in your hand and bursting with possibility. When you find just the right point to squeeze it, it cracks gently in half to reveal its innards, which are often red like a ruby, in marked contrast to the exterior. The best way to eat a fig, in my opinion, is gently sucking the fruit out of the soft rind, covering your fingers and lips in sticky fig juice. I learned it from my father, along with the art of slowly relishing the entire fruit, stretching out the enjoyment.
But don’t forget to drink water…an overzealous fig consumption incident in my youth resulted in considerable intestinal discomfort, which manifested rather explosively.
I’m not sure why I associate sensuality with figs so much, although their soft flesh does sort of remind me of rounded, curvy skin. And certainly I have been primed to do so by the role of figs in most of the literature I read. I’ve been enjoying the fruits all my life, so it’s not like I have some vivid erotic memory involving fig consumption, although I do have a lot of good memories in which figs appear, like riding on the Elk ridge with a friend and stopping to eat figs and mangos, dripping juice and lying in a field while our horses stood in the shade with their heads together like whispering friends. Or lying in the shade of a friend’s fig tree and drinking wine on a late summer afternoon, lazily smearing cheese on bread and nibbling on berries from the garden. Figs, to me, seem almost luxurious in addition to sensuous, like they would be served while one bathes in milk and honey and decides the fate of empires.
Figs also have an association in my mind with sin, for what did Adam choose to cover his nakedness? I always feel like I’m up to no good when I eat figs.
In 1918, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote “First Fig,” a poem which might, at first glance, seem utterly unrelated to figs. I’ve always been rather a fan of the poem, however, although people tend to look askance at me when I recite it. Perhaps this is because the layers of meaning in poetry always seem much more clear when you read it, rather than listening to it. It also seems to fit with my mood at the moment, and I do find a faint sense of irony in my newfound enjoyment of poetry, given my explicit lifelong loathing of poetry in general.
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand;
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand.