Monday, August 04, 2008

The Fleeting Fig

On a blistering Saturday, a few weeks ago, my roommate Donna and I were strolling through the Birmingham Farmer’s Market. Among the verdant (ha!) baby zucchini, the flimsy white boxes overflowing with field peas, and the slices of buttercup yellow watermelon being passed around, my eyes latched on to one of my favorite fruits of summer. The elusive fresh fig.

They were round, plump, juicy-looking, not like the poor little anemic ones we see in the markets in Orlando. These figs, whose ruby-red center lay glistening with clear nectar, were Alabama figs, probably plucked from the tree hours before arriving at the Farmer’s Market. I gravitated toward them while Donna admired a box of Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes.

As I leaned down to the green cardboard box full of the little figs to inhale their unique floral aroma, I heard Donna behind me, “Don’t buy figs. My neighbor has a TON.”

Okay, then. I spent my four dollars on a tub of local goat cheese. Good trade off.

When we got home, we walked next door to Kim’s house. Her tree was weighted down with the heft of so many juicy Brown Turkey figs, each holding a fleshy center full of fragrant syrup and tiny seeds. I had forgotten to bring a bag, so I hiked up my dress and gathered the tiny morsels Hungarian-potato-picker-style in the skirt of my dress. Of course, I ate about as many figs as I collected.

As I bent down to pick a few from the bottom of the tree, I caught the unmistakable smell of rancid fruit, decaying at the root of the enormous plant. I should have taken that as a warning.

I had grand plans to make a fig upside-down cake – a gorgeous concoction of sautéed figs in a cast iron skillet with lemon-scented cake batter poured over them and baked for 25-30 minutes and then turned over on itself, revealing the caramelized fresh figs. It seemed too good to be true.

I remember reading somewhere that fresh figs are extremely perishable – meaning that they begin to decompose very quickly – and they weren’t kidding. The next day, only five of those figs were salvageable, and as I leaned over to pick the non-fermenting figs out of the bowl, another waft of that rancid fruit smell pierced my nostrils.

Lesson learned: The next time I pick figs, I will use them immediately.

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