It’s nearly the end of May, which, as anyone with a drop of Italian blood in them knows, means only one thing:
As far as I know, any family with an Italian patriarch worth his saltimbocca owns at least one fig tree.
I am not Italian. Just ask the “100 percent Italian” waiter at the little trattoria we went to last weekend, who made sure to point out this fact, all the while fawning all over my dark-haired, olive-skinned husband. I know he was 100 percent Italian because he told us this. About three times. But I get it. After being married into an Italian family for the past 19 years, I know a little bit about how it works.
Which brings us back to the fig tree:
Native to the Middle East and particularly prolific in Italy and California, it’s not at all common to see fig trees among the saguaros and ocotillos here in the desert Southwest. If you do, in fact, see one in someone’s yard, you can pretty much guess that someone of Italian descent resides there.
My straight-from-Italy father-in-law has two of them, and he made sure both of his desert-dwelling sons have them as well. In fact, we have two. Years ago, he came over with some roots and a few branches from his own tree and said, “Plant this.” And we did. And it quickly got enormous, and started shedding those giant fig leaves that look just like Adam and Eve’s underwear.
And ever since, it’s like my father-in-law has allowed us to adopt and raise his own flesh and blood. I’ve even sent pictures as it grew. It’s not unusual for him to call our house to check on the fig tree. Sure, he asks how the kids are, how’s everything, but what he really wants to know about is that fig tree. Are we watering it? Did we cover it? Are they getting ripe?
By “covering it,” I mean putting a sheet of netting over it when the fruit starts to appear, so as to prevent the birds from pecking at it. (I feel sorry for the birds that dare peck at my father-in-law’s trees. Let’s just leave it at that.) Prior to this covering, there’s much back-and-forth discussion between my husband and father-in-law that goes something like this:
Husband: “I went to Home Depot today, and they didn’t have it.”
Father-in-law: “Did you try Lowe’s?”
Father-in-law: “Ya gotta cover it or you’re gonna lose it all! I’ll go to my Home Depot and get some and I’ll send your brother over this weekend.”
Covering it is, for some reason, a big two-hour ordeal. It involves ladders, extension poles, other people, and if the kids aren’t around, some swearing. Then once it’s covered, it’s on.
We wait some more.
Last year at this time, not only did my father-in-law provide the netting and help us cover our trees, but he drove around to his friends’ houses to help them cover theirs, or do it for them if they were out of town. (All of his friends are Italian; thus, of course they have fig trees, too.) Because of this, we called him the Fig Saver, and imagined him wearing a Superman-like cape, flying around town, shooting netting out of his wrists, all in the name of protecting and saving everyone’s fig trees.
The other day, my in-laws had a pretty harrowing day that involved a doctor’s appointment, a painful shot to my mother-in-law’s spine and a visit to a very ill friend of theirs. The kind of day that you just want to end by going home and collapsing in bed. But no. They stopped over.
To check on the figs.
“One more week,” my father-in-law said as he drove off.
Strangely, it brought back memories of visiting my obstetrician’s office as I got closer to my due date, leaving the office with a “one more week” assessment.
When the figs do finally come in, though, it’s less like a birth and more like a competition.
Every night, my husband and father-in-law discuss how many they got, how they taste, how many are left on the tree, how ready they look, etc. We’ll bring some from our tree over and he’ll say, “Nah, these are no good.” Or, ” Too dry.” Or, “These were picked too soon.”
Then a whole big discussion ensues about the differences in elevation, water quality, the weather, etc. (We live 7 miles apart, however they do live on a mountain.) But usually what it comes down to is him saying, “You guys don’t water it enough!” or “You guys water it too much!”
For Father’s Day last year, we got him a sweatshirt that said “got figs?” on it. The fact that a company actually produced such a shirt tells me he must not be the only one with this obsession. And he actually wears it.
Every year, he announces the figs will be ready on his birthday, which is May 19. In fact, when he was a boy in Italy, that’s how he knew it was his birthday. If there were figs on the trees, he must’ve turned another year older.
Recently, one of the girls asked him, “Nonno, when are we going to celebrate your birthday?”
“You’ll know it’s my birthday when the figs are ready,” was his answer.
Turns out they weren’t ready on his birthday, but they might be this weekend, so guess when we’re celebrating his birthday?
Provided there are figs.
Last year, my sister-in-law and I toyed with the idea of having a baby shower-type party for him when the figs come in, with invitations, balloons, games, a cake, the whole works. Of course, he would think we were being silly, but to him, the fruits that come off these trees are like his babies. We weren’t joking.
Every day during the season, he gently plucks the ripe ones off the trees and lovingly places them in a basket, bringing it in and placing it on the table for all to admire.
And then he eats them.
And eats them.
And eats them. Skin and all. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen my mother-in-law try to temper his intake, warning him, “You’re gonna have a problem.”
In this family, a problem means either gas or intestinal issues. I don’t know if he ever has a problem, but I sure would if I ate as many as he did in one sitting.
He does share. IF you’re family or close friends. One by one, he introduced all three of our girls to the art and pleasure of fig eating and they all love them. And Mama loves them because they’re packed with potassium, fiber, calcium and a bunch of beneficial minerals.
And speaking of the art and pleasure of eating them, apparently there’s a whole lore among men comparing them to certain parts of the human anatomy. But this is a family blog, so we won’t go there. All I know is my husband loves them, too. A lot.
I’ve come across many recipes that incorporate figs, but I’m pretty sure my father-in-law would have a fit if he knew I tainted them by using them in a recipe. No, figs are to be eaten in their purest form. Not dried. Not in a pudding. Not in a cookie. I am quite certain he’s never even heard of a Fig Newton.
Besides, there are never any uneaten ones left to use. Once, my father-in-law came over and saw that we had a basket overflowing with them. It was about three days’ worth of pickings and we just hadn’t gotten around to eating them all.
He looked at the basket in horror, as if we had left an unattended child in the middle of the street.”Those are gonna go bad!” he admonished. “You gottta eat them! How come no one’s eating them? If you don’t want ‘em, I’ll take ‘em. I’ll send some to Uncle John!”
“Pop! How many you think we can eat in a day?” said my husband. “Just because we don’t go crazy doesn’t mean we’re not eating them!”
Sadly, because it’s such a short season, the figs are gone before we know it. But that’s OK, because that only means one thing:
Time to make the sausage.