Under the Fig Tree: A Seasonal and Generational Favorite

Summer memories all share a single secret, a common throughline: they are sweet, usually there is the feeling of the sun on your cheeks, a soft breeze, and the moment is bite sized, just enough so that as you watch your family enjoy their day in the sun, it brings back some of yours just for a moment. If you’re a born and bred North Carolinian, or even a more recent transfer, one of these memories could be tied to something just as tantalizingly sweet and home grown as those summer days. Perhaps it is bound to the plentiful fruit trees that dot the small-town landscape of Roanoke Island.

Fig trees, picked today as a late summers treat, were done just the same during the time of the Etheridge family, when they called the island their home in the 19th century. As the Etheridge’s were expanding property holdings in the area, growing to encompass land on Bodie Island, academics and collegiates traveling through coastal North Carolina in 1817 recorded the abundance of figs and [scuppernong] grapes enjoyed by the residents of Roanoke Island. Their notes help document how the plant spread, just as their caretakers did, across the outer islands.

Lithograph displaying the physical properties of a fig, including shape, size, as well as leaf proportions to support the adjacent written description. Figs.

Fig shrubs and trees, like all that are adapted to life on shifting sands, come in a variety of shapes, sizes, tastes, and colors. The fruit itself, in a biological context, is actually a flower (a multi-flower to be precise). The blooms are contained within the cup shaped fruit structure, flowering and safekeeping the mature seeds that flesh out into the delicious fig that dedicated fans know and love. These fruits can be tiny, colorized a bright green and delicate gold like that of the Celeste fig, or swell to that of a tennis ball, rendering into a rich, deep purple, likened to a brown, in that of the Turkey fig. From tenderly sweet to rich and savory, cooks and chefs look to this seasonal delight for baking, cooking, and crafting the world-famous Fig Cake, a recipe concocted right on the shores the Outer Banks.

From Roanoke to Ocracoke

To find the most diverse holdings of figs in the OBX , you’ll have to take a drive down NC 12 with an accompanying ferry ride to Ocracoke Island. There, 9TH generational O’Coker and fig historian hobbyist, Chester Lynn shares his expertise on the fourteen varieties of figs that have been documented on the island. Lynn, with both friends and colleagues, noted differences in yield, ripening time, tree size, flavor, and coloration of both trees and fruit, expanding upon the original three to four varieties initially thought to grow on Ocracoke. The first varieties date back to the early 1800s, not long after the first Adam Etheridge arrived on Roanoke Island in 1757.

When asked why fig trees grow so heartily in the trying conditions of the island’s sun and sand, Lynn points to the relationship between trees, soil, and people. Fig trees originate from the Mediterranean and Middle East, leaving them well adapted to readily draining soils and a sub-tropical clime. Their natural taking-to of the island led many O’Cokers to adopt a fig tree of their own. Lynn also emphasized that a happy tree was one that was close to a caring family; trees that had oyster shells and food scraps tossed at the base were supplemented with more nutrients, allowing them to flourish and more readily resist storm damage from a hurricane. As people exchanged old food for fresh fruit, the relationship between trees and community deepened, and was passed through the years. The unique purple gems are so communally cherished on the island that Ocracoke celebrated their 10th annual Fig Festival in August with a record number of cake contest submissions this year.

In Ocracoke and the surrounding communities of Hyde and Dare counties, figs have their tried-and-true culinary executions. On the modern menu, don’t be surprised to find fig layered cake, fig fritters with lemon glaze, fresh figs garnished atop muffins and scones, and even savory additions such as rack of lamb with a fig and balsamic reduction. With a more simplistic, but as some would argue a more nuanced, approach to their craft, our predecessors preferred eating figs one of two ways: fresh or preserved. In a kitchen with no opportunity for refrigeration, figs spoil quickly once harvested, and they do not ripen after they’ve been picked. In best practice of the time, Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery of 1851 records the best tactic for saving a harvest. Figs were picked by the bushel, cooked down in a simple syrup, possibly seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon depending on availability, then were jarred and left to rest for an afternoon in the summer sun. Later iterations of the timeless recipe came in the form of jammed, jellied, and candied figs.

A Fig in the Hand

From late July to early September, figs can be enjoyed during the height of their fruiting season. Once the first nor’easters of fall brush through the island, the delicate fruit is preserved to enjoy throughout the chill of winter. As Roanoke Island shifts from summer exultations to prepare for the beginning of the storms, so do the fig trees begin their slow wind down into dormancy. Here at Island Farm, we are still enjoying the warm sun that accompanies the life of working with the land and sneak a few ripe treats from our Brown Turkey trees when we see those gems beckon from beneath the shade. VISIT US to see how these timeless treats wove their way into the fabric of life on the Etheridge farm and to create a few figgy memories of your own!

Accompanying photograph for Miss Leslie's Complete Cookery cookbook. Figs.