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October 20, 2009
Figs don't grow in New Jersery. In Italy they're everywhere: along the railroad tracks, at the edge of a forest, forgotten in a deserted garden, laden year after year with luscious fruit. But not here. Not on their own. Here, you have to help them along. This involves wrapping them in burlap for the winter and unwrapping them in the spring. Rubbing the bottom of each fruit with a bit of olive oil in later summer, to hasten ripening -- don't ask me why. We just do what Luigi the barber tells us to do. Like all Italian-American gardeners who ply their trade in New York or New Jersey, the man knows his figs.

I resigned myself early to the probability that our figs would not ripen this year. Number one, they ddn't get unshrouded from their winter cocoon anywhere near soon enough -- it was already summer when I got back from Italy for a brief visit. I unwrapped the poor thing and hoped for the best, but the long sunny season upon which an Italian fig tree can depend is shorter in New Jersey, believe me, even if you don't spend half of it wrapped in burlap. Then it was cool and wet in New Jersey this summer, they tell me: the tomatoes for which we are famous didn't make much headway, either. Fruits whose sweetness needs to explode gloriously from within need heat and sun in order to bring that off, and the Jersey boys guys didn't get theirs this year.

By the time we got back for good, dozens of tiny hard green figs had appeared amoung the leaves that had hastily put themselves out there to catch what sun they could. A hundred, maybe more, on the one tree. I began looking for recipes involving unripe figs. I knew The Silver Spoon would have some -- Italians don't waste anything that can be eaten, and if a hundred little hard green figs are what you have, they've probably known for a thousand years what to do with them. Sure enough, there was a recipe for unripe fig conserve. I would get some new jars and lids.

But a little hard green fig cooked in sugar until it softens enough so that you can chew it cannot be compared to a ripe fig: soft, sweet, dark, its rosy insides spilling out of a slit in its delicate skin, the slit made by the swelling wet goodness of what lies within. The fig is a lascivious fruit indeed, which is why medieval and renaissance schoolboys found it uproariously funny, and invented an obscene hand gesture imitating it. My unripe fig conserve just wouldn't be the same. September came and went, and still they hung, stubbornly green and hard. While it would be better than throwing them into the compost, my heart was not in the project.

Such were my thoughts until I caught sight of something out the kitchen windown that took my breath away: a distinct shadow of deep brown on the side of one of the figs. And another, the same. Yes, they were on the small side -- not much sexy swelling went on this summer -- but they were ripening nonetheless. In October.

After about a week, we picked one of the darker ones and shared it. Oh, my. Thank you, Jesus. In subsequent days, more -- two or three each day, then five or six. I'd pass the tree on my way to the train and grab one for the road. We were out there yesterday with a ladder and a large wooden bowl. Five pounds of ripe figs, maybe more. They were slowed down, but not defeated. It's not over until it's over, so don't give up untill you're sure it really is.

I will give some to Anna and Corinna. I texted Ellen to come and get some. You can come and get some, too, if you want. They're in the pantry.


Book Party for Barbara Crafton's latest book, Jesus Wept: When Faith and Depression Meet at St Luke's Episcopal Church, Metuchen, NJ on Sunday, November 8th after the 10am service. Barbara will preach at both services and sign books afterwards. Jesus Wept is available on Amazon at or from the Geranium Farm Bookstore at
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