by David Cecelski
On Sunday afternoon I drove to Sonny and Jenny Williamson’s home in Marshallberg to pick up a few fig tree cuttings. Jenny had rooted them in pots for me earlier in the summer from a fig tree that has been at her family’s homeplace since she was a child. Her old family house is gone now, replaced by a newer house, but the fig tree is still there. This time of year, its branches are heavy with sweet purple figs. Their friends walk by the house and pick a few every morning and I think Sonny and Jenny have shared cuttings from that old fig tree with half of Down East.
Sonny and Jenny both grew up Down East, the long stretch of broad salt marshes and old fishing communities that runs from North River to Cedar Island. Jenny was raised in Marshallberg and Sonny in Sea Level. Fig trees have flourished Down East for centuries, but Sonny said that he and his neighbors did not really eat a lot of fresh figs when they were growing up.
Instead, their mothers and grandmothers preserved figs by the bushel. Back then, preserved figs were always on the dinner table. “That was our dessert,” Sonny told me. His mother preserved a quart of figs for every week of the year so that they’d always have them in the pantry. Jenny still preserves figs every August and she made sure that I left with two quart jars of the preserves that she just put up.
Now in his 74th year, Sonny has recently been discovering the joys of eating fresh figs, too. He will eat them right off the tree or, sometimes, like when I was there the other day, Jenny will make a quick but very nice little dessert out of a few fresh figs and whipped cream. She even put a cherry on top.
Here’s Jenny’s recipe for fig preserves. This is how Down Easterners have prepared these preserves for generations. It’s also how my grandmother and our older neighbors made fig preserves, though they lived 10 miles this side of the North River Bridge. We usually ate the preserves with biscuits. Sometimes I think I could live off of biscuits and fig preserves, I love them so much.
MISS JENNY’S FIG PRESERVES
1 peck fresh figs.
5 lbs. sugar
2 lemons, peeled
Wash figs. You can cut off stems, but Jenny doesn’t. (Sonny likes the little crunch.) Combine figs and sugar in a large pot, a layer of figs, a layer of sugar, etc. Add lemon slices, cut thin. You can let figs sit overnight at this stage. Jenny’s mother did, but she doesn’t. Cook on medium heat until brown and syrupy. Stir now and then. Place figs in hot, sterilized jars and cover with the syrup.
Fig Cake is another very traditional Down East recipe, though I find fig cake even more often on Ocracoke Island, on the other side of Pamlico Sound. Fig cake is one of the few recipes I know that calls for fig preserves as an ingredient. I got this recipe from my wife, Laura, who—we can’t remember—may have originally gotten it on Ocracoke Island. Or maybe from Southern Living. Certainly this recipe is a lot like the ones I have seen on Ocracoke. It’s a wonderful, wonderful cake—very moist and very figgy, but not too sweet.
MISS LAURA’S FIG CAKE
2 cups flour3 eggs
1 and ½ cups sugar1 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. salt1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. baking soda1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. ground cloves1 cup fig preserves
1 tsp. ground nutmeg1 cup chopped pecans
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
Blend dry ingredients and spices. Stir in eggs, oil, buttermilk and vanilla. (Laura usually goes lighter on the oil, adding more buttermilk instead.) Fold in figs and pecans. Pour into a greased and floured 13 x 9 pan. Bake 35 minutes at 325 degrees. Glaze with lemon juice blended with powdered sugar.
When I got back from my trip Down East, I planted one of Sonny and Jenny’s fig cuttings at our farm. I found a nice sunny spot between the kitchen and a field that is now fringed with morning glories and passion flowers. Hopefully, if we get enough rain, we’ll be eating fig preserves and fig cake for a long, long time. Of course, every time we eat one of the new tree’s figs, we will be thinking of Sonny and Jenny.