The Ancient Fruit of Eurasia Spreads Its Seeds and Roots in America
Imagine yourself nude in the midst of a suburban jungle. There is a beautiful fig tree begging you to pluck just one leaf to conceal the robust body that society deems shameful. This is my fantasy — being able to eat figs as if I were in Eden. Instead I’m in Ozone Park, NY where dozens of fig trees stand in full throttle every summer.
Deep in the outskirts of the city, lush fig trees are rooted to sandy and degraded soil in the yards of Italian Americans. For decades, we have had a tradition of planting fig trees upon moving into new homes. This is a way of transplanting a provincial aspect of our southern Italian culture to the States.
More importantly, the trees signify prosperity, family unity, strength and perseverance. Permanently settling on a piece of land warrants the planting of a tree, a fruit bearing symbol of the Old World that we can be proud of and revere.
Fig trees also symbolize the essence of the Mediterranean. Yet they do surprisingly well here in New York, considering that this species has been cultivated in much warmer climates for centuries.
There are two main colors in which figs blossom into ripeness: green and purple. Size varies depending on the tree’s age and its environment’s climate. In Turkey, Greece and Italy, figs are typically huge, much larger than those here that I’ve seen and sampled. While in Italy a few summers ago, I had a fig the size of an apple! It was green and plump; the succulent juices could not be contained.
Leaves start to develop on trees in mid-May and from then until the end of August is the peak of a fig tree’s development. With hungry, wide eyes, one can admire the green little suckers bulge and ripen over a few short weeks time. During early August, I begin to crave the sweet, tart inside of the fig and I anticipate the pleasure of the ripe fruit’s flesh on my tongue.
Late August to mid-September is harvest time. Be prepared with bowl in hand to scour the branches for wonderful little gifts, so delicious and fleeting.
Biting into a fig is an intimate and sensual experience. There’s a slight resemblance to sex if you let the flavor and texture consume you. The skin is thin and tender, and if the fig leaf is a phallic symbol, then the fruit itself must represent the V shaped giver of life women possess.
A fig is also an embodiment of our most primitive desires; I feel like I’m in paradise when I see these purple emeralds gleaming in the late summer sun. The hunter-gatherer instinct occupies the mind when we reach behind a fig leaf and pull off the fruit (pop!) and another grunt of joy emerges when the mouth receives nature’s gift.
Fig trees are more than providers of food; they are family members. We care for them through watering and pruning. Until recently, encasing them during the winter months was typical, but global warming has solved that debacle. The reward for this care is worth the minimal effort.
The only drawback is that it takes at least three years for a young tree to mature and bear fruit. This may seem like a long time, but how long does it take for a child to grow and reward its parents with love after caring for him or her?
In parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, fig trees have grown with families, seen the best and worst of human and weather patterns prevail. The trees endure it all. If you know any Italian Americans, ask them if they have a fig tree and befriend them immediately or reconnect with them at the end of the summer. We take great satisfaction in our figs and will offer them to the most curious or skeptical person, to anyone who is open to indulge in the beauty and taste of one of the world’s most ancient and exotic fruits.