A perfect fruit for snacks and dreams

My grandmother's fig tree branched out over a white picket fence, creating cool shade on a summer afternoon. That tree became a castle, a dollhouse, and the perfect hide-out. As a little girl, I never dreamed those fat purple figs we popped into our mouths or smushed onto a fuzzy leaf to make fairy food were a delicacy. To us, it was fast food, 1950s style.

My grandmother's fig preserves were another story. I never much liked them, and she couldn't give them away fast enough as far as I was concerned. Each summer she added a dozen filled Mason jars to her pantry, the fruit floating in syrup like some science experiment gone bad. Everyone we knew had a backyard fig tree or two and their own glass jars lined up on pantry shelves. Fig preserves just weren't that special. I preferred my fruit right from the tree.

Then I left the South and moved to northern New Jersey, far from my grandmother's backyard tree.

Years later, on a summer weekend trip back to Mississippi, I discovered a fig tree behind my sister's new house. Now, she's learned to expect the phone calls. In July, I begin checking: "Are the figs ripe yet? Have the birds eaten them all?" I plan my visits around her fig harvest.

Trial and error have taught me that carefully packed fruit survives a three-hour plane trip, and figs have a five-day refrigerator shelf life. My problem is parceling them out to last more than an hour after I'm home.

A recent Bon Appétit magazine survey claimed that figs have a high yuck factor. As it turns out, not that many people share my enthusiasm for the honey-sweet fruit.

But I suspect those people who named figs as their least favorite food never sprawled out beneath a grandmother's tree and plucked a ripe fig right off the branch. Or turned fig preserves, unappealing to a child, into a goat cheese appetizer sure to impress.

Last summer, I came close to buying an actual fig tree. A roadside stand whose tomatoes are the pride of New Jersey had a basket of figs for sale. To be precise, it had three large figs for sale. Most shoppers passed them by in favor of the ripe tomatoes, Silver Queen corn, and perfect green peppers. I don't know if it was the $3.50- per-fig price or the yuck factor kicking in.

I admired the farmer's figs and told him about my grandmother. He walked me down a path and pointed to a mammoth leafy tree. "My grandmother brought this from Italy years ago," he said. "She's 90 now and still picks the figs."

He would sell grafts from that tree if you knew what you were talking about, fig-wise. I was tempted. I thought about the delicious fruit I could pick in my own backyard. I would prepare fig preserves for all my friends. But in our northern New Jersey location, fig trees must be planted in just the right sunny spot and wrapped in blankets to protect them in winter.

I think I'll continue to travel back to Mississippi for my sister's harvest. There's something about the smell of a Southern summer evening and the feel of those fuzzy green leaves that reminds me of my grandmother and her fig tree.

And this year, I'll try harder not to eat the entire crop on the plane ride back to New Jersey.

Fig-Rosemary Goat Cheese Appetizer

1/2 cup heavy cream
3 ounces goat cheese, softened
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper (or to taste)
Fresh figs (as many as you are willing to share!), or fig preserves
Crostini, for serving

Process cream, goat cheese, rosemary, honey, and pepper in a food processor until smooth. Put into a small serving bowl. Cover and chill.

When ready to serve, cut figs in half. Arrange them around the cheese mixture.

To eat, spread goat cheese mixture on top of a piece of crostini and then top with a fig half. If fresh figs aren't available, substitute fig preserves.

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