Wednesday, January 27, 2010

For the love of figs

As an end of summer rite our family visits a local eatery that serves mostly local, occasionally organic and always fantastic food. In September when I was in a particularly morose funk about having to get back to the regular routine of, well, regularness...schooling, driving, music lessons, driving, swimming and driving, we went to the resto and discovered that they had FIGS. These were not just any figs, mind you. Oh no, these were the most delectable things I have ever eaten. These were juicy, brown, dripping with delicious, sticky, fig-juice figs! There were three of them, gorgeous and glistening, split in half with their seedy, plump, pink interiors shining up at me, sitting on a white plate, nestled on a bed of slightly spicy arugula and stuffed with ewe's milk blue cheese. Yes, that sentence contained far too many adjectives but, I'm telling you, these were sublime. I ate them, shared them and could have called it a night, satisfied and happy to have met and loved a fig in all its juicy glory. The only thing I could imagine matching this meal were figs wrapped in prosciutto. Or warm figs drizzled with honey. Or stewed figs.
That evening I became obsessed with the idea of growing these little gems right here in my own yard. Immediately I knew this to be folly. I live in gardening zone 5! Figs are Mediterranean! I would have to uproot my family and move to Turkey! Or, less drastically, I would have to construct a greenhouse! Due to expense and general laziness and inertia, I abandoned the plan of moving to Europe so I could grow figs and decided that it would take far less energy to determine whether I could grow them here. I poked around the web a little bit and found a whole community of fig-crazed individuals who grow them inside in containers in cold gardening zones. I researched and read and chatted and discovered that one can, in fact, grow figs quite successfully here. I eagerly searched for local-ish nurseries that might carry them and found one in western New York; Miller Nurseries in Canandaigua. ( While I longed to purchase and possess and eat the gorgeous Celeste Fig; this delicate fig has a pink center which bleeds into a white rind and is surrounded by an olive colored skin, it was not to be. The beautiful Celeste is not hardy enough. She is only able to tolerate the temperatures of Zone 6 which only has a low of -10. We hardy fools in zone 5 can tolerate lows of -20, or so they say. Anyway, I went with the Brown Turkey fig which is hardy to zone 5. I restrained myself and ordered just two. Figs are actually a shrubby kind of tree which like to be a little root-bound meaning they should take well to a pot and, as long as I don't fall off the pruning wagon, shouldn't get so huge that I can't move the containers inside for winter. Winter care should be restricted to watering every three to four weeks and keeping the tree from freezing. The two beauties will arrive in spring for planting and I can't wait!
Growing figs in our yard is another way that we're trying to establish a super local food-shed. We grow currants and gooseberries, golden raspberries and wild blackberries for fruit and I've had strawberries in the garden for several years now, although I need to replace the plants this year. It's been so long since I've felt this urge to provide for ourselves that I can't even remember what triggered it. Whether it's a genetically coded hunter-gatherer instinct that is particularly strong in me or the natural consequences of growing up in a rural farming community where people just did for themselves. Sometimes I wonder what drove me, over twenty years ago, to ask our landlord if we could dig up a four by ten foot strip of their front lawn so I could plant chinese cabbage and tomatoes or what created the conviction that as long as I have seeds in my possession and some dirt we'd be okay, regardless of the circumstances. I guess it really doesn't matter anymore. What matters is that that same feeling, that same sense that we should take more responsibility for ourselves and rely less on the crumbling cultural systems that no longer serve us, is spreading fast, like a wave around the nation. While I do allow myself the indulgence of worry and anxiety over the future of, well, everything, I don't let it consume me. I don't allow myself to become overwhelmed and fatigued by the idea that we're at the end of everything. That our resource pool is rapidly shrinking or being destroyed. No. Instead, I get busy with the work of re-structuring, of learning old skills and teaching them to my children, of educating myself about growing food, raising animals, providing for ourselves. I get my hands dirty. I plant figs.

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