Fruit of the gods

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When I chat with a new friend or someone I just met and mention my fig trees, they almost immediately shake their heads and ask, “Did you just say fig trees?” Living in the Midwest as I do, it comes as a surprise to most people that we raise figs. And believe me, keeping these beauties alive in this region is truly a labor of love.

I have vivid memories of the 22 fig trees my father kept when I was a kid growing up in Chicago. We all know the size of a city lot, but my parents owned the lot next door, as well. The view from the street was amazing: a luscious green carpet of grass in front of an array of beautifully colored flowers, then a grove of 6-foot-tall fig trees. They were my father’s pride and joy.

One day, I came home from work, and my mother and father were yelling in the kitchen. Not talking-yelling, but yelling-yelling. Apparently, my dad told my mom she needed to move her flowers to make room for more trees. I turned around and left. No, siree. I wanted no part of that confrontation. My mother put a lot of work into those flowers. I am left to assume that she threatened to cease making bread or pasta because the flowers didn’t move, and I never heard a peep about it again.

Expanding an orchard is easy enough. You just lop off a certain branch and stick it in the ground, and another tree will join the family. The trick to keeping fig trees alive from year to year in the Midwest is burying them. Yes, I did say “burying them” — in the fall before the freeze and then replanting them in the spring.

That isn’t an issue here at my house because my husband has a huge tractor with all kinds of attachments, and 3-1/2 acres of land to work with. He digs a trench, uproots the trees, lays them in the trench, and covers them with plastic and leaves, where they sleep through the winter. In May, he removes the protective coverings, grabs the trees, brings them to the planting area where their holes await and sets them back into the ground.

When I was a kid, it was all shovel and muscle, with my brother and nephews doing the heavy lifting. No wonder they were happy to see new blood come into the family. The newbie was quickly trained, and by the time winter arrived, the yard next to the house looked like a burial ground. The flowers were cut down and, beyond that, all you saw were hills of dirt.

Once again upright after a long winter, the trees would bask in the sun and hydrate with the late spring rains. Slowly but surely, broad green leaves and then small green figs would appear.

As it was back then, so it is today. Our trees produce purple mission figs. As summer matures, so do the figs. By mid-September, they are ready for picking. To grab that first fiche, rinse it with the hose, take a bite … ahh, heaven.

Once all those figs ripen, the possibilities are endless. You definitely CAN have too much of a good thing because figs are a natural laxative, so you have to pace yourself. I use them in a variety of dishes, render them into preserves and bake them into treats like Cuccidati, the traditional Italian Christmas fig cookie.

A couple of years ago, I started to jar them whole with slices of lemon. What a presentation on a charcuterie board! The syrup from the jar can be used to marinate pork or as an added ingredient in the slow cooker. We enjoy our harvest all winter in many different ways.

So here we are again, relishing the sweetness of our figs and the memories that come with them.

The above appears in the September 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Gina Geiss

Gina Geiss (DeAngelis) grew up on the Far South Side of Chicago, better known as the “East Side.” She currently lives in Schererville, Indiana, with her husband of 24 years, Dennis. They both enjoy traveling. Gina had a 32-year career as a production scheduler, and is now self-employed doing grooming services for handicap/homebound individuals. She’s an ace in the kitchen, and cooking for family and friends is a passion. There’s always room at the dinner table. In 2020, Gina became president of the Italian American Womens Club of Lake County, where Italian history and heritage are honored and passed down to future generations.

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