Cynthia L. Nobles
Special to Food
One of the most delectable rites of a Louisiana summer is standing in the shade of a fig tree and picking that first soft, plump piece of fruit and enjoying its earthy sweetness right then and there.
And although to us figs seem as Southern as pecans, they’re actually native to the eastern Mediterranean around western Turkey. This region is home of the Smyrna fig, a common, large fruit used mostly for drying and a variety fertilized by the fig wasp. (More on that critter later).
The fig tree is a member of the genus Ficus and was cultivated long before wheat, barley and legumes. It is also likely that it was the first plant humans grew. Evidence of fig consumption goes back to as early as 3000 BC, when fig syrup was used as a sweetener in Assyria, present-day northern Iraq. Baskets of figs have also been found in Egyptian tombs, and numerous references to figs appear in the Bible.
This “manna of the Mediterranean countries” was highly prized by ancient Romans and Greeks and was a main part of their diet. In those days, figs were eaten fresh and roasted, used as medicine, and were force-fed to pigs and geese to make their livers fatty for foie gras. In dry, arid regions figs were often preserved by burying the raw fruit in hot desert sands.
And did you ever wonder about the white milky stuff that oozes out when you pick an unripe fig? It’s latex, and Greek shepherds used fig tree branches containing latex to stir cheese and accelerate the process of coagulation. Fig latex was also historically used to cure warts and skin ulcers.
The fig did not appear in Paris until the 14th century and was served there as an hors d’oeuvres or dessert. England didn’t have figs until the 16th century, the same time as America, when the Spanish introduced them to the New World.
Now, back to the fig wasp. Most commercially grown figs are pollinated by wasps. The fruit of the fig is hollow, with the flowers located inside. The eye, or ostiole, the opening at the tail end, allows the fig wasp to enter for plant pollination, wasp mating and egg-laying.
When an exhausted female wasp, a wingless male or undeveloped larvae die inside an edible fig, a plant enzyme called ficin digests the remains and breaks carcasses down into totally edible protein. But the LSU AgCenter has good news for anyone in Louisiana squeamish about downing insects: The fig wasp doesn’t exist in our state. Therefore, varieties grown here have closed eyes and are parthenocarpic, meaning they don’t require pollination. But don’t get distressed about eating bugs in figs that aren’t local.
Humans have been harmlessly consuming wasp-pollinated figs for thousands of years. And, honest, that crunch you feel when you bite into imported figs is hard seeds, not dead bugs.
Fig wasp aside, this “food of the common man” has been around so long and has been cross-bred so much it’s estimated that more than 850 varieties are scattered throughout the world. And your favorite is probably the one that grows happily and without much attention in your own backyard.
Today, the most revered fig tree in the world is the Bodhi Tree. This “Sacred Fig” grows at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India.
A destination for Buddhist pilgrims, the tree is propagated from the same tree that Buddha sat under while he meditated his way to perfect knowledge.
Sources: Food (Root,
Waverley, 1980); Visual Food (D’Amico, Serge, 1996), lsuagcenter.com; beesnwasps.com.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’ title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at email@example.com.