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2 december 2014

When I lived in Astoria, Queens, in the late 1980s, there was a Greek-American family who grew a lone fig tree in the little front yard of their southwest-facing corner lot. They wrapped it in black plastic so it would get through the Long Island winter, and it bore fruit late every summer. When I finally got a front yard of my own in more fig-friendly Texas, I planted a fig tree, which new owners eventually let die – but almost 20 years later, a cutting from that fig still grows in a pot on my current patio. For a while we had a veritable fig nursery going, with cuttings from neighbor trees that had acclimated well to the extreme North Texas climate conditions. But even though they winter over here nicely without black plastic, our occasional bizarre spring frosts can blight whole growing seasons or kill the trees outright. And figs love drought, but weeks at 40° C after months without rain can stress even a fig tree. But in a year when the conditions align – mild spring, hot summer, August thundershowers – you can get a wonderful week of fresh figs that makes up for the other 51 without them.

Figs are survivors, growing in cracks in rock, close beside walls, on dusty waste ground. I've seen them growing profusely in scrubby Provence, a climate and vegetation zone not unlike parts of Texas. In his global history, David Sutton traces the domestication of the fig back into prehistory, along a route that probably led from southern Arabia up to Mesopotamia and Persia and then back across to Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Mediterranean. One of the stations along the way, Asia Minor, became the adoptive heartland of the fig tree, and Turkish figs still dominate world markets and imaginations.

This westward expansion of fig territory serves as a structural principle for Figs. Sutton plots geography against chronology, with chapters on ancient Greece, classical Rome, and medieval Western Europe. As with so many foods, figs can figure as the apex of epicureanism (for the rich who can command fresh figs in abundance) and the basest of subsistence goods (in countries and times where dried figs were so common as to replace bread). "The most luxurious and valued of all fruits and the most copious and commonplace," Sutton calls the fig (95). He cites proverbs that use the fig as shorthand for the nugatory, and tells a pretty funny joke about popes and pigs that I'll direct you to the book to read in full. Sutton cites the perishability of the fresh fig, its position high in trees (and thus in imaginary food hierarchies) and the accumulated connotations of its pairings with wines and cheeses as contributing to its prestige.

Lower on the prestige scale, Fig Newtons get only a line or two in Sutton's Figs (86), but they're the form in which I first ate (and loved) figs. Not only didn't I eat a fresh fig till I was in my twenties, I doubt I even saw a whole dried fig till then. To me, "fig" was a cookie filling, different in substance but not in category from Oreo creme. Like so many of the processed foods of my American childhood, Fig Newtons bore a distant relationship to an organic product that had once grown on a tree somewhere, a raw material at the head of an impossibly long supply chain that I could never retrace.

The recipes that Sutton includes are for fresh figs, so I won't be able to test them till next summer. (Though at that, the global marketplace is capable of washing fresh figs into Texas stores at very odd times of the year, so an update might appear at some near-future opportunity.)

Sutton, David C. Figs: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2014.