by Leanne E. Smith
It was a fluke that the 2014 Fig Festival was held in August. The fig cake bake-off that had been part of the July 4th celebration was postponed last year by a few weeks because of Hurricane Arthur. It was a success, so the organizers with the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association tried it again on Friday, August 14, 2015. Now, they hope the “fig-tastic” event, as it was called in some pre-festival advertising, will grow into an annual festival.
This year’s handful of local vendors gathered at the Community Square to sell fig items starting around 1 p.m.: fig preserves, fig photos, fig cake, fig trees, fig-smoked barbecue, and more. The Ocracoke Preservation Society also shared samples of fresh figs and iced yaupon tea sweetened with fig syrup.
Close to 2 p.m., local historian and fig aficionado Chester Lynn spoke about figs and answered questions from the audience. He’s a 9th generation Ocracoker, and he decided early in life to use his photographic memory to learn about what interested him.
Fortunately for Ocracoke’s figs, he chose them. He reviewed some history about how Margaret Garrish had planned to make a date cake in the 1960s, but when she didn’t have any, she used fig preserves in the cake instead.
Previously, Islanders had made layer cakes with fig preserves between the layers. Chester joked that it is a fig cake in the same way that, for some people on the Island, a yellow cake with chocolate icing is a chocolate cake. The fig cake that began in Margaret Garrish’s kitchen, however, is its own species. Other residents gradually started making the cakes, and they became a community tradition.
Though the new traditional fig cake is relatively young, figs have a longer history on the Island. Chester noted some previously published incorrect estimates and refuted them, citing some earlier writings that mentioned figs at least as far back as the early 19th century and showing some photographs of his grandmother with mature fig trees in the background. He showed a couple of artifacts: a bottle for commercial fig syrup and a plate, marked with the name of an old hospital near the Panama Canal, that was found under a fig tree where an older lady used to feed cats on the Island. He also corrected some family lore. “It’s hard to admit,” he joked, “but granddaddy was wrong” about how many fig varieties there are on Ocracoke. Chester has described at least ten more than the three or four his grandfather told him about. But in the fourteen he has observed, Chester notes that some varieties have further branches, such as the Celeste trees that have different numbers of fig crops in a year and different times when trees’ crops ripen.
Chester has approached his research with a combination of logic and intuition, evident in the way he answered questions from the audience, saying he would observe a historical habit and then try to figure out the reasoning behind the practice or the lore. He noted that the fig trees like Ocracoke’s combination of sandy soil and salty air. The old people, as Chester reflected, would say the years after hurricanes were the best for figs. That was because of the extra salt exposure. An audience member who had observed them near buildings asked, Do they grow better next to buildings? Chester encouraged another question: Well, why would they? They would get extra rain water that runs off the roof, and they’d be protected from the wind. How do the shells people put around the bottom of the tree help? It’s not just the shells that fertilize the trees. It’s the oyster or clam juice in the shells, and the residual salt, too.
Physically, though, the weight of the shells helps to hold the root system down in high winds. He mentioned a saying about how a tree at a house that’s vacant for a few years will go barren, but that’s actually because people aren’t there feeding the trees. While commercial fertilizer can work, historically, seafood scraps and chicken manure were common.
What about pruning—do you cut them back? The counter-question: Why would you want to do that—unless it’s too big or it’s too difficult to reach the figs? “Don’t try to make it into an apple or pear,” he said, “It is not that, and you shouldn’t try to make it that.” What about people who don’t live here—how much salt does a tree need? In response, he shared a story about an ailing tree that had stopped bearing figs. He poured a box of Morton table salt around it about six or seven feet from the base of that large tree, and it had a crop the next season. The amount would, of course, vary by the size of the tree. January is a good time to add salt, so the winter rain can help wash it into the soil around the tree.
At the end of the talk, someone asked about preparation for eating fresh figs. “Show people how to eat a fig,” Philip Howard said. “Some people peel them,” Chester said, “but I just—” And he took a bite. Attendees then sampled some of the four different varieties he had brought to share. Like scuppernongs straight off the vine, the shelf life when the figs are just right is very short. They’re just better here straight off the tree—or in preserves, in a cake.
Island restaurants participated through the week leading up to the festival, with Back Porch Restaurant’s Figgy Gin Fiz cocktail, fig cake, and fig and prosciutto appetizer; Dajio restaurant’s fig cake; Fig Tree Deli/Sweet Tooth’s fig cake and fig bars; Flying Melon Café’s lamb rack with fig and balsamic reduction and figs foster; Ocracoke Coffee Company’s fig muffins and scones; Ocracoke Oyster Company’s fig-smoked BBQ; and the Pony Island Restaurant’s fig muffins. Fig availability varies on the Island, with the last crop ripening as late as October, but people who missed the festival or need to restock fig preserves can find some at several Ocracoke locations: Albert Styron’s Store, Corkey’s Store, Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum, Ocracoke Restoration Company, Ocracoke Seafood Company, Ocracoke Variety Store, Pony Island Restaurant, Roxy’s Antiques, Village Craftsmen, Woccocan Gifts, and Zillie’s Island Pantry.
The fig contest entries went on display around 3 p.m. ahead of the judging scheduled for 4 p.m. At previous fig cake bake-offs and innovative recipe contests, the same judges have evaluated both the traditional and the innovative entries. This year, however, event organizer Sundae Horn recruited two panels of four judges. For the traditional cakes, the judges were the children of fig cake developer Margaret Garrish—Wayne Garrish, Melissa Garrish Sharber, and Mandy Garrish Jones—plus celebrity judge Bob Garner.
For the innovative recipe category, a combination of locals and visitors judged: Liz Hotchkiss, Valerie Gokturk, Janet Chrzan, and Justin LeBlanc. In the blind evaluation, both categories considered presentation, texture, figginess, and flavor.
Whereas the clam chowder cookoff in April had nearly twice as many entries in the non-traditional category, the balance was healthy for this year’s fig bake-off: 13 in the traditional set and 15 in the innovative group. Ruth Toth of Ocracoke won in the traditional category, for which the Garrish siblings sought the one that was the “figgiest” like their mother’s, and for the innovative category, the winner was Danielle Kalnas, visiting from Gibbstown, New Jersey, on an annual vacation with approximately three dozen family members.
“We saw lots of variety today, that’s for sure,” Bob Garner said before presenting the plaque and yard sign to Ruth, who he aptly described as an “all-around good cook and good neighbor.” She organized the April clam chowder cookoff and was so pleased with the turnout for it that she made cakes for both categories—not with winning in mind, but to contribute to the community participation. In accepting the honor, Ruth said she “followed the recipe in the yellow Methodist cookbook,” for which several people in the audience clapped. She added extra fig preserves and extra nuts, and she also didn’t use an electric mixer. “But other than that,” she said, “I was just lucky.” She mentioned that the proceeds from sales of her fig preserves are supporting the Ocracoke Community Park, on which $800,000 is still owed. About the preserves she uses for her fig cake, she said, “I make them the way my grandmother did: 2 pounds of figs to 1 pound of sugar.”
The innovative category included layer cake with frosting, bunt cake with fruit glaze, upside down cake, cupcakes, muffins, chocolate, fig pie, fig and almond tart, fig scones, and fig fritters with lemon glaze. Both categories have variation, but the conglomeration of entries in the innovative category makes it more difficult to judge. Instead of the apples-to-apples comparison in the traditional category, the innovative one is apples-to- oranges-to-guava. The winner by one point was Danielle’s layered spice cake with fig preserves, caramel sauce, walnuts, dark chocolate, and lemon cream cheese frosting. She also mixed her cake by hand, not so much by choice as Ruth had, but by necessity because none of the family members visiting from New Jersey had an electric mixer in the places they were renting for the week. So, for bakers willing to take the time and make the effort, mixing by hand seems to help achieve award-worthy texture for fig cake.
The second August Fig Festival was certainly a success, and the Ocracoke Rockers, led by Martin Garrish, closed the evening with their boogie-worthy music at the Community Square after the sharp pink sun slipped below the soundside horizon.