I can still recall the moment I tried my first fig. You have never tried a fig either? Well, I hope to convince you to change your wicked ways. As I have mentioned before, my food memories are always most vivid for me. This memory takes me back to my years in Florence, Italy during the first few weeks when I had fallen in love with My Albanian.
My First Fig
My Albanian and I were on the way to Mercato Centrale, the Central Market in Florence. As usual, he was patient with my food obsession and let me slowly peruse the main floor ogling bread, fresh pasta, meat, dark green bottles of extra virgin olive oil and such. I was always wishing I had money to buy all the things I knew I could make into a “better than sex” meal. Alas, I was a poor art student with nothing to my name. We then ascended to the second floor via the old iron stairs (in Italy, the second floor is considered the 1st floor, which is frankly, dumb in my opinion) where all the vendors sold fruit and vegetables.
My Albanian always treated me to a favorite treat, crystallized ginger, which I always purchased from the crotchety-old Dried-fruit Man. Dried-fruit Man seemed to despise all his other customers and tourists trying to buy from him and he would grunt when reluctantly accepting a few lira in exchange for his goods. However, his eyes always softened and he would smile warmly when I purchased, most likely, too much from him. I liked to imagine that perhaps I reminded him of a lost love or one of his estranged granddaughters. I love old people. They keep it real. We then headed over to our Banana Lady and she loved My Albanian. She was always winking at him, calling him “Il Latino.” I am not the jealous type, and I enjoyed seeing him cast his charm over this middle-aged lady. After weighing the whole bag of bananas, she would always throw in an extra banana for him. As a former starving artist, I am all for using your allure if it means getting food for free…within reason of course. I can’t tell you how many meals, drinks, and pizza I got for free while living in Italy, thank you, Italian men!
Peel Thy Figs!
As we walked around the other fruit vendors, My Albanian become excited, “It is fig season already!” He walked over to a vendor and quickly purchased a bag full of figs. “I’m not really into figs though.” I said. He looked as if he could hate me forever, “What do you mean you do not like figs? They are delicious!” Oops, my bad dude. We walked out of the market with our ginger, bananas and figs and headed back to our apartment right off of Piazza Del Duomo, but he couldn’t wait that long. He sat right down on a bench in front of the Baptistery and rolled down the sides of the brown paper bag. He took one out, treating it like a tiny newborn baby, and handed it to me, “Here, try this.” Chill dude, “Okay.” I popped the whole thing into my mouth and chewed, it was a life-changing moment. It was quickly followed by, “That is not how you eat a fig!” My Albanian proceeded to demonstrate and tell me how to peel a fig. “Here is how you eat a fig.” Handing me the properly peeled fig, I experienced that same euphoria of sunny and sweet chewy textures in my mouth. Holy guacamole!
How could I have gone my whole life without eating a fresh fig? I came from California, the main grower of figs in America. Until that moment, I had only eaten them dried, and well, they were just dried figs, nothing too endearing I guess. I couldn’t even recall seeing a fresh fig in our local vegetable stand back home. All I knew though, is that I would never refuse a fig ever again.
Facts About Figs
Albania is pretty much one big fig growing field. No matter where you drive, you will see a fig tree growing, on the side of roads, in ancient ruins, beside a decrepit old out-house, everywhere. Of course, no self-respecting Albanian would have a home or garden without a fig tree or at least a few. As I have come to understand in my love affair with figs, is that there are many varieties of figs; some say over seven hundred! Most of them are essential to the ecosystem in the jungle. Domestically though, there are white figs, sometimes called green figs, black figs, brown figs, and a fig that is called the “eggplant fig” in Albanian, or “patëllxhan.” I have no favorite, I love them all.
About the peeling of figs, the reason a person eating figs would want to peel them is due to the microscopic hairs on the outside. It makes them kind of fuzzy and it can tear the shit up in your mouth. Learn from my momentary lapse into stupidity and just peel your figs like a good Albanian. I once had to test this Albanian theory, and proceeded to eat several (read more than ten) figs from my tree without peeling them, and my mouth felt all puffy and painfully cut up inside, never again.
Figs, I have found out can also make you fat. Yep, this seemingly healthy fruit loaded with beneficial fiber and nutrients has been shown to help with blood sugar regulation, great for diabetes and hypertension. Yet, it is also the one fruit that every Albanian knows will make you fat because of the high sugar content. So be it thighs, I will gladly do more squats and lunges in the gym if only to enjoy a few more figs.
In 2002, My Albanian and I purchased our first home together in Las Vegas. We were saving every penny and enjoying the American Dream together. When his birthday came along I gave him a small sapling fig tree I had purchased from Home Depot (my ultimate favorite shopping destination). I planted it in a small pot and he just loved it. I kept it alive, which is easy to do, they are amazingly hardy. The following year we purchased another new home from a builder and we planted it immediately in our side yard. It was like our baby. Soon thereafter we were prized with our first green fig, which we shared in pure joy... Since that time, the fig tree had grown into an unruly teenager and its fig production has multiplied yearly. Many of our Albanian friends told us to cut it down immediately before it did damage to the house, but we didn’t want to listen, we wouldn’t hear of such a blasphemous thing. It quickly grew big enough to climb and to hold our two boys while they searched for ripe figs.
Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending. As we prepared to move out of state, ten years later to Tennessee, we knew the time had come to cut it down. Our fig had invaded our albeit small irrigation system on our patio, plugging up the water pipes so much so, that we decided to go back to hand watering our potted plants. I enlisted the help of our favorite Albanian friend who also had a beautiful and proper Albanian garden in Vegas, to chop it down. On a warm winter day, little by little it was cut down to the ground. I cried, because like every good 80’s child, I had enjoyed and cried every time I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It too had given me so much joy. It had shaded our cute patio as the boys grew up, and offered us a haven from the intense and unforgiving heat of the dry desert. We strung up Christmas lights through it’s branches during the holidays and I made my very first batch of beautiful fig jam from the copious harvest it gifted us.
A Love Reborn
Our home looked naked when we left. There was hardly a room in the house where you couldn’t enjoy the beauty of our fig tree, it helped us make our house a home. I took two cuttings from it’s branches before I left and have successfully propagated them into two potted babies for our new Tennessee home. Reports from our house in Vegas is that our first baby fig has been reborn and has continued to grow disputes efforts to kill it. Our rebellious tree has sprouted again, branching out and even producing a few figs. Right on!
Michelangelo's fresco, Sistine Chapel depiction of The Fall, 1516.
Figs have been loved and sought after for thousands of years. Adam and Eve needed the fig tree to assemble clothes from it after being cast out of the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:7) Some religious scholars also believe the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was indeed a fig tree and not an apple or pomegranate tree. Admittedly, I don’t think I would have needed the assistance of an evil snake to tempt me into eating a fig. God would have found me like a kid with his hands in a cookie jar and crumbs all over his face...except in my case, it would have been sweet fig juice. I would have been cast out due to my own free will and utter weakness. In Mark 11:12-20, even Jesus was craving the goodness of a fig when he saw a tree, and when he found out the fig tree had only leaves and no fruit yet, he went on a ‘hangry’ rampage, cursed the tree and then proceeded to make a rebellious scene at the temple courts in Jerusalem, turning over tables and causing such chaos. I can totally relate.
If a fruit is sought out by Jesus and Albanians, you know it must be good eats. Fig season has just started in Albania, so go and bless your tastebuds and “Ju bëftë mirë!” (Good appetite!)
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