One of the last things I did before leaving Jordan this week was to go into the backyard of my family’s home to see if another fig was ready for the picking.
It’s also the first thing I’d done when I arrived there, upon my mother’s insistence. We’re a family that gets pretty excited about blooming fruit.
While I certainly also embraced the apples on their tree and the grapes on their vines, there’s something magical about the fig, perhaps because it’s so hard to find in its green and pink perfection of sweetness, unless you literally have a tree in your back yard. I had never been in Jordan at this time of year, and so the last time I had had this privilege was years ago when I had lived in Athens and Beirut, where peddlers used to walk by with carts teeming with freshly picked figs. I understood better then Fatima’s obsession with the fig tree in “The Night Counter” than I had before. So while the fig was Fatima’s eureka moment, I had mine picking a fig off a tree in Jordan—I learned that it is possible for a writer to understand her characters even more after she’s literally closed the book on them.
When my uncle came over later that day, he went off on another book, talking about how the figs leaf outfits and numerous other references to figs shared by the “people of the book” or Old Testament, as it is better known in the US.* Not so fascinating when you consider that those stores were pretty much set right where we were sitting. But, if we were just talking figs, those stories could have also been set in California, the U.S.’s fig supplier. But because figs are so delicate, it’s hard to even get them to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market in tact, let alone deliver them to the rest of the country. The difficulty of transporting them is why it was possible for me have a conversation with my Florida-born nephew once in which he said, “I know raisins come from grapes, but what do figs come from?” “Figs,” I answered. “But before they were figs, what were they?” Even if I could have torn him away from his Xbox to get a fresh-ish fig one at the finest grocery stores in town, it wouldn’t have been juicy and bright pink. It’d have been a little tired and a lot happier if it had been allowed to dry up and go into his Cliff Bar.
There are scores of recipes for fresh figs, but really that seems wasteful. Your time could be better spent than trying to improve on perfection. But if you do insist on jazzing them up a bit, a side of white cheese is really all you need.
* In case you were doubting there was anything beyond the fig leaf threads, here is one of many other examples, and a quote that often find well explains the power and comfort of faith to those who have nothing (and even those who do):
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
a God, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the deer’s;
He makes me tread on my high places.
I could listen to fig stories all day. Nadia and I just returned from a week in Palm Springs and 29 Palms where we stopped at a fig plantation. They had about 15 kinds of figs for tasting and fig jams, candies, cookies, breads and best of all fig milk shakes. And to think that all I ever ate in Minnesota were dried figs.
Yes, we have a fig tree and grape vine, but no olive tree.
I didn’t know about that festival. Next time I’m back in California for sure! I didn’t even know the figs in Minnesota came from trees.