In nearly every memory stuck in my head and heart there’s food lurking in the background. From time to time I’ll reflect on these old stories–not just of what I ate, but with who, where, why, and how I felt. Food is love, they say, and it’s all you need.
The fig tree was in the backyard of my grandparents house in Brooklyn, the house my grandfather bought after bringing eight children into the tenements of New York City in the early 20th century. It was great to finally have a place for his garden; he planted grapes in the small patch of dirt in the conrete backyard in Bensonhurst, trying to recreate what he had across the ocean in Sicily. In the warm weather, tomatoes and basil pots were scattered around the yard.
It must have been in the early 1930`s that he planted the fig tree right in the center of the garden. That became the focal point, dwarfing the grapes and basil plants. By the time I was old enough to understand, sometime in the mid 1950s, the tree had matured to its maginficent height and the leaves were large and luxurious. In the winter he would mask the beauty of the tree with burlap and a large bucket to hold it all in place. The mysterious wrappings were a strange thing to see when I was very young. But by the time I was four or five I knew what a delicious, tasty treat was resting in the winter months.
In the spring, my grandfather would lovingly unwrap the present of what was to become–giant ripe figs, not for cooking but for eating, sometimes right off the tree. There were naked branches that stuck out akwardly in the center of the backyard garden. The figs started off small and green, just little bulbs in the concrete. But as the spring moved into summer, the elegant green leaves would burst into what we were waiting for. As the summer moved from July to August–with heat and humidity and everything else a New York summer brings–my grandfather would remind us grandkids that those beautiful purple figs were almost ready. With nine children, all married, and with 14 grandchildren, he had to ration out the figs.
We waited on line–oldest to youngest–for that perfect moment when we would taste the spectacular fruit. I thought I was lucky not being at the end but somewhere in the middle. Then the exact moment I eagerly awaited, tasting the fig– magical.
Every year it was the same. And every year, the anticipation was mounting. I never got to have more than two or three, though I would try to sneak back into to line. But up until my grandfather`s death in 1959, the ritual of the fig tree was the highlight of my youth. Now I have my own fig tree in my backyard, a little bigger than the patch of concrete in Bensonhurst but still here in the city that they settled in. I grow basil and tomatoes, too, but the fig tree is the center.
It was the memory of my childhood that allowed me to pursue the goal of owning and taking care of the coveted fig tree. Now I can eat as many figs as I want, and I do. But I miss the anticipation of waiting on line for the precious few my grandfather doled out with such care. The memory lingers, like so many others. If I close my eyes while eating in my own backyard I feel transported back to Brooklyn, to my grandfather`s face and all the love he showed us in that small backyard.