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by howard martell

by  Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s Program Note. Tommy at the Montrose Spa up the street was in a pother when I walked in the other day. “Where have you been?”, he blurted out. Clearly, I had done something or, more accurately, failed to do something, but what? Tommy’s index finger pointed at my dereliction. It was a box of Mission Figs. “I got three boxes of them a couple days ago,” he said. “And I thought sure you would have come in and snatched them up.”

He positively pouted, his point irrefutable… I was, after all, his absolute best fig customer. I got the last box (for the day) and made my point, too. “You could have called me…” Oh, yes, he should have… but in the event, the figs in question went precisely where they were destined to go, “Down the hatch.”

Fig Newtons

My first encounter with the fig I devour with avidity and the greatest possible satisfaction was not felicitous. Quite the reverse. For you see, I have always hated Fig Newtons and nothing you say to me will change my adamant mind. So don’t even try. Still, as this is an article about figs mention must be made of Nabisco, which buys as many figs as anyone, only to waste them by baking a trademarked version of the ancient fig roll pastry filled with fig paste.

It might as well be wallpaper paste as otherwise; they taste about the same. Still, since invented by Philadelphia baker and self-proclaimed fig lover Charles Roser in 1891, its characteristic chewiness has been a staple of school lunch boxes as has its unusual shape. And yes, in the interests of civic boosterism I feel bound to tell you that the Cambridgeport, Massachusetts-based Kennedy Biscuit Company purchased the Roser recipe. As I am writing to you near Cambridgeport, I feel compelled to tell you. What’s more because I can never give too many encomia to my city, state, and neighborhood you are now being told these unappetizing “Newtons” were named after Newton, Mass, just down the road a piece. Thus, I have done my duty. But never, ever ask me to eat a Fig Newton or change my lifelong opinion that the cookie is an abomination and a colossal waste of otherwise delectable figs.

“I don’t care a fig about that.”

Have your heard this age-old expression? It means that your level of interest is so low in the the matter under discussion it hardly signifies at all. But I am sure that doesn’t apply to the fig itself. I am certain you do care a fig about the fig and desire to know absolutely everything about it, and so I am about to dramatically increase your knowledge of Ficus, a genus of about 850 species of woody trees. The common fig (and the adjective nettles this most popular of Ficus tree) is called Ficus carica. Make a note of it. These things count in life.

Ficus carica is native to the Middle East. People developing an instant affinity for figs took them on their travels. Soon they were everywhere from Portugal to Afghanistan. People of acutely different cultural and political views found themselves united in their love of figs. Amity must start somewhere. From the 15th century onwards it was grown in areas including Northern Europe and the New World. This had two important results.

First, Europeans, especially the English, turned mere figs into culinary perfection. Each Christmas their figgy puddings became sinfully delicious architectural monuments, the grander you ordered, the higher your social standing (and likelihood for gout and other conditions of the well-to-do.) Figs were Introduced into England by Cardinal Reginald Pole. Burnt at the stake in 1558, he may have been the first notable to grill figs, a delicacy. Yes, figs were moving in the highest society including a featured position in a particularly rambunctious Christmas carol, “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. The important and lyric line as far as figs are concerned is this: “Now bring us some figgy pudding/And bring it right here”, and people did as they were bade. Delicious.

The second result occurred when figs landed in California. It was a match made in heaven, facilitated by Fra Junipero Serra (d. 1784), the man who more than anyone was responsible for the quaint little missions. Thus we may call him the officiating agent in the marriage between the sweet taste of luscious figs and the unmatched agricultural land and climate of the Golden State. The padres savored the figs and no doubt ate more than was good for them; (figs are like that.) And so Mission Figs were born… thereby provoking the great debate between the figs that grew in Cyprus (“the original”) and those caressed by the goddess Cali. Which was truly superior? Now lest you say you don’t care a fig about this, I tell you this: figs no less than the rest of us bicker about their position in life… and there isn’t a fig grown who will tell you ca sera sera. The competition is real and each side aims to win.

Me, judge.

I am one of the few people you will ever meet who has indulged himself, copiously, ravenously, not wisely but too well, with both claimants. Because I lived in California from1962; (in Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles, one of Serra’s most dubious achievements) I disdained the local figs (for all their glorious aspects). People are like that, overlooking perfection merely because it is readily available. And thus I began my love affaire with figs in Cyprus, the place my long-ago Crusader ancestors found refuge at the de Lusignan Court after being summarily ejected from the Holy Land they conquered and misunderstood.

It did not take much of a leap to imagine that my devout but unlucky kinsmen made themselves as comfortable as possible in the harbor at Limassol and buying a heaping basket of figs for a pittance proceeded to spend a glorious afternoon devouring its contents, spitting stems into the cerulean beauty of the Mediterranean. It was not a bad way to spend centuries of exile. Perhaps the figs, exclusively local produce, helped make it all bearable, la dolce far niente being some small consolation for the now lost Via Dolorosa tread by Our Saviour and promising believers eternal life and redemption. Figs offer their own sweet balm… and we must take it as we can.

Celebrity fig eaters.

The argument for preferment of Cyprus figs over their succulent California rivals goes like this. Not only are we the original deal, but we have been chosen and then eaten by an almost unbelievable cadre of VERY Important People. Here learned figs wax encyclopedic as they recall their celebrated eaters through the ages and the daunting array of figgy references, viz. The Holy Bible, in the Garden of Eden (where figs are rightly put out by the fact that their goodness is overshadowed for eternity by the egregious apple).This opinion is shared by every fig, outraged by injustice. Modest by nature, figs consider it only fitting and proper that their foliage, in the form of a leaf, should be used to perplex and shield youngsters of tender age, whose first baffling question to parents is: what did you do with your leaf, Mama?  It is an almost unanswerable query.

The figs of Cyprus are renowned throughout the mythological, classical and historic records. How they were used in the Jewish Passover celebration…  how the legendary founders of the Eternal City and its empire, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf under a fig tree. (She-wolf milk being difficult to gather, the wolves seeing no reason to share, this notable figgy cocktail did not catch on.) How Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, sat under a fig tree (apparently a popular past time for historic figures) and changed the world. It is not recorded whether he ate of this fruit. We can only hope he did, for millions depend on his own well-being and a mental clarity enhanced by figs .

Cleopatra, some figs, and an asp.

Learned figs, the most numerous kind, all know that Egypt’s iconic Queen Cleopatra deprived young Octavian Caesar of her body and renown by the simple expedient of placing an asp in a basket of ripened figs, pinching the serpent which retaliated by biting her majesty and ruining the figs. (Shakespeare is graphic on this revolting fact.) Perhaps for this reason concoctions involving asps and figs have been rare.

“The fig is a secretive fruit.”

Figs are not a prudish fruit. They pride themselves on their liberality of outlook, truly fruit of the world. But even advanced figs still dance gingerly around the matter of D.H. Lawrence’s 1920 success de scandale, “Figs”.

“The fig is a secretive fruit. As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic; And it seems male. But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is feminine.”

You need a fig leaf for the remainder and a place no one can find you whilst reading.

Beside this wealth of imagery, literary references and the known dietary preferences of gods and princes, Cali offers only one argument for its Mission Figs: unrivalled taste. And this, as Tommy knew, will always be paramount… which was the reason he should have called me forthwith, figs not yet on the counter. I would have bargained for the lot and thanked Lawrence for telling me how to eat them.

“Just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.


Before going to Tommy’s today to see if there are Mission Figs available, if so pouncing to get all that he has, I recommend as the music for this article “Liaisons” from Stephen Sondheim’s splendid 1973 show “A Little Night Music.” Find it in any search engine. Hermione Ginggold is perfectly ancient, world-weary and sardonic as Madame Armfeldt. Her disgust at the descending standards of contemporary life is palpable. “What once was a sumptuous feast is figs. No — not even figs — raisins!” And that simply won’t do.

About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Services include home business training, affiliate marketing training, earn-at-home programs, traffic tools, advertising, webcasting, hosting, design, WordPress Blogs and more. Find out why Worldprofit is considered the # 1 online Home Business Training program by getting a free Associate Membership today.  Republished with author’s permission by Howard Martell <a href=””></a>. Check out Video Traffic Academy ->

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