I started writing this post about figs, but I really can’t write about figs without telling you about my friend Dot. Dot was the person that got me to try my first fresh fig. I had never eaten a fig until I was in college. I didn’t know what they tasted like, but our friend and neighbor, Dot, had a gorgeous fig tree. Dot, who was in her 80s at the time, couldn’t eat all the figs her tree produced herself, so she would go around the neighborhood sharing her harvest. Dot loved figs. She pampered her tree like you wouldn’t believe. Even though some of the neighbors, myself included, offered to help her pick the figs, she seemed to keep after them herself just fine. Even though the figs always seem to ripen up during the hottest part of the summer, usually mid-July, Dot didn’t let the heat get in her way. She would get up really early in the morning and survey her tree, trying to get to the figs that were ready for picking before the birds did.
Dot hated it when the birds got to her figs first, so she developed a system for protecting her harvest. She’d pick the figs just before they were perfectly ripe and then place them on the fence alongside her driveway. She would then drape an old piece of lace over the figs as a cover, so the fruit could ripen in the sun without the birds pecking holes in the soft flesh. Dot also developed a solution for getting the figs that were just out of reach. She would use an old iron pole-style plant hanger–the kind you stick in the ground that has a “U” shape on one end–to loop around a branch and pull it, ever so gently, towards the ground. That way she could pick all the figs that were near the top without getting up on a ladder. Dot was creative and independent like that.
The first time Dot gave us figs I didn’t try them in their raw form. Instead, I cooked them down in a sauce pot with cinnamon, sugar and lemon juice. To my surprise, the fig “quick jam” tasted pretty good. Gramps and Uncle Stan loved figs. They talked about how sweet they were when they were fresh and perfectly ripe. After a while, Mom and I finally got curious enough to try one fresh and we’ve never looked back since. Nothing beats a fig fresh from the tree. I was totally hooked.
Eventually, my love for figs led me to learn about canning. The only negative thing about figs is the fact that they perish very, very quickly, so you pretty much have to eat them as soon as possible, or preserve them in some way. My Uncle Stan planted some fig trees and started sharing his figs with us as well. Uncle Stan’s figs were a different variety than Dot’s, so we’d share some of his figs with her too. Figs seem to bring people together like that.
Last week we went out to my Uncle Stan’s to pick some figs. I was so excited to photograph his tree and some of his figs. Remember when I said figs were really perishable? Well, they look their best in the first few minutes after they are picked from the tree, so I hauled all my gear out to his house and picked a bowl full of gorgeous figs to photograph. I had to dodge the rain to photograph some of the fruit on the actual tree, but it all worked out. Mom and I came home with a huge bowl of figs, just begging to be made into jam.
I’ll forever think of Dot when I think of figs. I took these photographs of some of her figs back in 2008. When I went back into my archives to find these images, I found that they were taken exactly six years prior to the ones above that I took of my Uncle Stan’s figs (and I mean exactly, to the date of July 14th). Talk about freaky!!!
Today would have been Dot’s 91st birthday. Sadly, she is no longer with us here on earth, but she is with us in spirit. Every time I see a fig I think of her. I think about our friendship and I think about all the memories that stem from the fig tree. It always made me smile when I saw Dot fussing over her fig tree. Sometimes she would just gaze at it and smile (or shake her head, depending on how the tree looked). The sweet smell of figs hangs heavily in the humid air of July. I smell the figs and I think to myself, few things in life are sweeter than a true friend.
A portrait of Dot shortly before her 90th birthday in 2013: