When fig season starts in Charleston, there is a flurry of emails, postings on Facebook, and people knocking on your door with figs in their hands. The older trees produce figs earlier than the newer trees, so longtime residents, or those who purchased a home with an established tree, are the first to brag on their bounty.
Like many Lowcountry fig tree owners, Charleston writer and editor Harriet McDougal's 80-year-old tree is older than she is. Her friend, Peter McGee, ate figs from it as a boy when it belonged to another family. Harriet's grandmother purchased the home in 1929, so Harriet's family has fig tales after that. Harriet has planted five more trees there, all contributing to her robust fig harvest every year. She collects them in a very specific, small metal colander, sternly convinced it is the best thing to collect figs in because of the shape and the air circulation. Woe unto you should you not return it.
After she has her fill, she dispenses some to neighbors and friends and freezes the remainder, enjoying her figs year round. She either cooks them into jams or jellies when she has time, or slices them into cereal for breakfast straight from the freezer.
Charleston author Josephine Humphreys said, "My sisters and I grew up with a fig tree just outside the back door at 29 Tradd Street. We mostly ate the figs right off the tree but sometimes in a fig 'pie' with ice cream. The main attraction of the fig tree for us three little girls was the June bugs, who magically appeared in droves when the figs were ripe! I can't think of figs without thinking of June bugs. My husband's tree on Johns Island is one he planted; the variety is Celeste. This is the first time we've had a huge crop - in the past, birds have gotten most of the fruit, but this year he covered the tree with netting."
Cathy Forrester, author of "At Home Charleston," looks out at her grandmother's fig tree from her dining room. She has a 1940 picture of her mother standing in front of the much smaller tree in its early days. When the squirrels and the birds leave her enough figs, she makes a jam from a recipe in her book.
Figs through time
Just how old is the fig and how long have figs been in the Americas?
The fig is an ancient fruit, going back to perhaps 5,000 B.C. Scholars have debated for centuries if the fig is the fruit mentioned in the Garden of Eden. The leaves were large enough to provide some coverage for Adam, and snakes are known for being found around and in fig trees, sliding into the lower branches, even though snakes are carnivorous. The apple is also an old Middle Eastern fruit, but if a snake had to eat either a fig or an apple, it would be much easier to eat the fig.
Historians agree the first figs in this hemisphere were planted in Mexico in the 1500s, moving from there to California. They wound their way to Virginia, perhaps from Europe, by the late 1600s. According to Dr. Robert F. Polomski of Clemson University, they then moved into the lower South and South Carolina by the 1700s. With all their popularity, they have not been studied by Clemson as a commercial possibility in South Carolina.
In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote unkindly of the fig to South Carolina's William Drayton, "The fig and mulberry are so well known in America that nothing can be said of them."
According to Eric Becker, manager of the estates and gardens for Drayton Hall, "Charles Drayton records on February 16, 1779, that 'fig trees are beginning to flush leaves' and the first written entry in Charles Drayton's diary about figs is the 18th of June, 1791."
University of South Carolina scholar David Shields says, "Figs were everywhere in the Lowcountry from the early 18th century on. The 1831 meeting of the Horticultural Society in Charleston was largely devoted to all aspects of fig culture including varieties. In addition black turkey figs arrived in barrels from Turkey in large quantity and were standard stock in 19th-century grocery stores. The Colcock plantation on the Wando had an orchard of 60 fig trees (probably Celeste) in the 1790s that were famous. In the 1830s, a yard on the north side of George Street between Anson and Meeting was reputed to have the finest in the city.
"Usually fig varieties went by rather generic names: sugar, white, brown, brown turkey, Celeste, green (Ishia). In rural areas, a tree was planted by a plantation bake house because yeasts associated with sugar worked bread dough well."
Dottie Stone of Middleton Place sent two of the recipes found in a family cookbook, "The Carolina Housewife" by Sarah Rutledge, originally published in 1847. Sarah Rutledge (1782-1855) was Arthur Middleton's niece, daughter of his sister, Henrietta Middleton Rutledge.
Fill a soup plate with ripe figs, peeled and mashed very fine; to this add three table-spoonsful [sic] of sugar, half a table-spoonful of wheat flour, and a teaspoonful of butter. Bake in a moderate oven.
To Preserve Figs
Pick your figs when a little more than half ripe; peel them very thin, and to a pound of fruit put three-quarters of a pound of sugar; make a syrup, and put the figs into it, with a good deal of stick cinnamon; let them boil till clear, stirring frequently.
Cooking with figs
Cooked figs have a different texture and taste than fresh figs and need a bit of something to enhance their flavor.
It's important to avoid overcooking figs when making pies and cobblers for this reason. When testing a new recipe, keep in mind that less time is better than more for the figs, with half an hour at 350 degrees a good guide for a cobbler or tart filled with figs. For a pretty dish, take care the inside of the figs is to the presentation side.
Some things that enhance their flavor are lemon juice, lemon zest, orange zest, chopped candied ginger and fresh ginger, ground fennel or anise seed, dried cranberries, cherries, etc.
Josephine Humphrey's Fig Cobbler
Josephine explained, "We called it a pie but it was more of a cobbler. I think the recipe was from a Bisquick box, just a general fruit cobbler, super easy. My mom was not much of a cook."
The topping spreads over the top of the fruit, giving a crunchy crust. It takes well to being served with plain or vanilla yogurt or slightly sweetened whipped cream. Take care, as the figs are sweet in themselves.
3 to 4 cups figs, halved lengthwise
1 lemon, juiced
1 cup Bisquick
3/4 to 1 cup light brown sugar.
1 stick butter
Cover bottom of baking pan with halved figs. Squeeze lemon over the fruit. In large bowl mix Bisquick with 3/4 to 1 cup light brown sugar. Cut 1 stick of butter into the flour and sugar mixture, and spread it over the figs. Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes until browned and bubbly. Serve hot or cold.
Note: Self-rising flour substitutes well for the Bisquick.
Cathy Forrester's Fig and Lemon Jam
This is a delightful way to use of Charleston's ubiquitous figs during the summer months. A small piece of stem ginger is nice to cook with this jam.
3 pounds ripe figs
11/2 pounds granulated sugar
1 lemon, sliced very thin, seeds discarded
Cut figs in pieces and put in a heavy kettle. Add the sugar and lemon slices, mixing well.
Place on low heat until the sugar is dissolved.
Bring to a boil, then lower the heat again and simmer until the jam is thick. Stir often to prevent burning.
Pour into hot sterile jars and seal at once.
Process in a hot water bath if you wish.
Fig Batter Cobbler
This is the simple batter cobbler well known in the South, but with a bit more fruit than normally used. Baked in a ovenproof nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron frying pan, it can be turned out upside down. Otherwise, serve in the pan. Make the decision about how to serve in advance so insides of the halved fruit will be on the outside when serving. Blueberries, sliced peaches or mangos can be substituted for some of the figs.
1 stick butter
21/2 to 3 cups figs, halved
1 cup self-rising flour?3/4 to 1 cup brown or granulated sugar
1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In the oven, melt the butter in the oven in a frying pan or other baking dish. Remove pan.
If turning out the cobbler as if it were an upside-down cake, place the figs, cut side down, into the butter on the bottom of the pan in one layer, close together. Mix the self-rising flour, sugar and milk thoroughly and ladle carefully over the figs and butter. Return to the oven and bake until the top is light brown and firm and the bottom is crispy brown, about 1/2 an hour. Carefully run a knife around the outside of the pan, cover with a plate larger than the pan, reverse pan and plate and give a gentle shake. The cobbler should fall down onto the plate with the cut sides of the figs on top.
If serving from the pan, melt the butter in the pan or baking dish in the oven, remove and pour the batter of self-rising flour, sugar and milk over the butter. Add the figs, cut side up. The batter will rise up around but not over the figs.
Either way, serve hot or cold.
Variations: Add 1 to 2 teaspoons or to taste of chopped candied ginger, lemon rind, orange rind, ground fennel or anise seed to the figs.
Nathalie Dupree, who lives in Charleston, is the former director of Rich's Cooking School in Atlanta and the author of eight cookbooks, including "Nathalie Dupree's Comfortable Entertaining." She may be reached at www.nathalie.com.