It may well be the first fruit ever domesticated. It is mentioned – quite favorably, no less – in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And since it seems to reach back far enough in history, it may have even been eaten by dinosaurs. At least by those who weren’t busy eating each other.
It is the fig. And while its method of reproducing and surviving all these millennia is exotic, to say the least, it has most assuredly managed to do so. And it has developed an extensive fan base along the way.
Figs generally start appearing on (and eventually falling from) fig trees with the heat of summer. That means that they appear first in the deep south, whether that be Sicily, North Africa and the rest of the Mediterranean world or the southern states in our own country, staging a kind of rolling harvest northward as the season progresses. A line drawn loosely across, say, Virginia, is the farthest north they can prosper at all, with the usual exceptions for hothouses and the like.
With Texas as runner-up, California is the biggest U.S. producer of figs, as it is of practically everything. Yet there is a meaning deeper than agribusiness in that simple factual statement.
Spanish friars, the same ones who brought grapes to make sacramental wine first to the part of New Spain that’s now Texas and later to California, brought figs to grow for food at their mission churches. Today, so-called Mission figs are the single most popular variety, although there are quite a few types of figs grown around the world.
The picture of dinosaurs munching on figs may be more fanciful than real, but the idea of humans domesticating a wild fruit in the Near East – that exotic world of Assyrians, Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Persians and, yes, Israelites – is entirely reasonable. These were early cultures that made the finding and developing of a survivable diet their Job One.
Some believe that when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge, they were actually taking a bite out of a fig, not an apple. Apples should probably sue for defamation. We know that when the real first couple sought to cover their suddenly embarrassing nakedness, they and a few thousand years of artists after them chose to do so with a – fig leaf.
Domestication of fruits and vegetables usually involves controlling the way they were already reproducing on their own just fine, thank you. In the case of the fig, this involves overseeing the symbiotic relationship of figs and wasps (called fig wasps, logically enough). In simple terms, these wasps are looking for a place to lay their eggs to make baby wasps, and the fig with its opening at one end is perfect for the job.
In return, the wasps spread fig pollen around, making more figs while they are purposely making more wasps. It is a strange system, but it works, which explains why Mother Nature, and even modern science, hasn’t figured out a better way.
Still, we think one of the best way figs spread themselves around is inside a classic cookie. Turning figs into a paste or jam is an ancient skill, like so much else about this fruit. Surely that inspired the Kennedy Biscuit Works of Cambridgeport, Mass., to create a cookie recipe in 1891, and also inspired a fellow named Charles Roser to produce his own version commercially in Kenton, Ohio, selling out to Nabisco in 1910.
According to that iconic American baking company, Fig Newtons were named after either Newton, Mass., or Sir Isaac Newton. And since Sir Isaac supposedly developed his understanding of gravity watching an apple fall from a tree, what if it was a fig falling after all? Remember what happened to Adam and Eve.
CROSTINI WITH RICOTTA & BALSAMIC FIGS
Crostini in Italy are toasted crusty bread slices that show up in front of you with an endless variety of toppings. Bruschetta with tomato and basil in olive oil is only the beginning, not the end, of such delights. The next time you are thinking of making your favorite bruschetta recipe, consider making this instead. Or, of course, in addition. The marmalade adds a layer of sweetness that might not be there otherwise, depending on your choice of balsamic vinegar.
1 cup fresh or dried figs
1 cup balsamic vinegar
½ jar Fischer & Wieser’s Whole Lemon & Fig Marmalade
2 cups ricotta cheese
In a pot, heat the figs in the balsamic until bubbling and reduce until sauce is syrupy, 8-10 minutes. Stir in the marmalade until thorough incorporated into the thickened sauce. Slice the baguette and toasted both sides until crisp and golden under a broiler. Remove from oven. Spread the ricotta generously onto the baguette slices and top each with a few figs. Drizzle with sauce. Serves 8-10 as an hors d’oeuvres.