Today we welcome a guest post by Georgann Eubanks, author of The Month of Their Ripening: North Carolina Heritage Foods through the Year, just published by UNC Press.
Telling the stories of twelve North Carolina heritage foods, each matched to the month of its peak readiness for eating, The Month of Their Ripening takes readers on a flavorful journey across the state. Georgann Eubanks begins in January with the most ephemeral of southern ingredients—snow—to witness Tar Heels making ice cream. In March, she takes a midnight canoe ride on the Trent River in search of shad, a bony fish with a savory history. In November, she visits a Chatham County sawmill where the possums are always first into the persimmon trees.
The Month of Their Ripening is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Marking the Textures of a Year
Fresh figs have a complex texture. When ripe, they can become a muddle of flesh and juice if seized in the hand too roughly. The peak of ripeness is so ephemeral for every single fruit that picking figs becomes both art (handling) and science (timing). This vulnerability is what makes a ripe fig so precious. According to British food scholar David C. Sutton, only three percent of the figs consumed on the planet are eaten fresh. They simply don’t keep well. It is far easier to dry out the little punching bags of sugar and seed than to sell them fresh at market.
As my own fig tree grew and I suddenly had fresh, imminently perishable figs aplenty to share with my neighbors in Carrboro every August, I was surprised to learn how many people I know have never tasted a fresh fig. Most only know the fruit by its association with the Nabisco cookie.
A little research revealed, incidentally, that Fig Newtons were named for the town where they were first baked in 1891–Newton, Massachusetts–not some contrived association with the first proponent of the theory of gravity, which I somehow believed as a child. According to the New York Times, the global food conglomerate that now manufactures these cookies actually dropped “fig” from the name in 2012, after market research revealed that younger consumers associate figs with prunes, a fruit believed to be synonymous with old age.
“Newtons” as they are called are still square and about a half-inch tall with the same nondescript, chewy cookie crust, and now filled with a rubbery infusion of fruits such as strawberries, apples, apricots, or peaches. Because of this substitution, I suspect that children today–at least in the United States–may be even less likely than my peers to know what a fresh fig tastes like, but I am sure the fruit’s value will prevail. The crunchy sweetness is undeniable.
If you’d like to become better acquainted with fresh figs, August is the month to visit Ocracoke Island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. From the island’s earliest occupancy by European explorers, more than a dozen varieties of fig plants were established and still grow in easy profusion. During Ocracoke’s fig festival, the fruit is celebrated on the menus of island restaurants–from pizza topped with sliced figs to barbecue pork that is smoked with fig wood.
The most astonishing fig variety on Ocracoke is what locals call the pound fig, which is heavy and wide enough to fill the hand and offers a meaty, rose-colored flesh that’s berry sweet. Ocracoke’s blue fig is also distinctive–a deep purple fruit that drapes the warm air around it with a flowery scent, discernible from a distance and tender on the tongue in the first mushy bite.
Sometimes I forget how important texture can be in the enjoyment of food. Besides the figs that are among the twelve ephemeral fruits, vegetables, and seafood that are discussed in my book, The Month of Their Ripening: North Carolina Heritage Foods through the Year, several other foods present special textures. The delicate soft-shell crab (May), the surprisingly meaty serviceberry with its grape-like flavor (June), the viscous scuppernong (September), and the slippery oyster (December), all take their distinctive identities, in large part, from the texture in that first bite. These edibles are at their best only when they’re fresh. As they ripen, each is a meaningful way to mark the passage of a year in our Carolina kitchens.
Georgann Eubanks is a writer, Emmy-winning documentarian, and popular speaker. She is the author of Literary Trails of Eastern North Carolina, Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont, and Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains. For more information, visit her website, www.georganneubanks.net.