By Meredith Hughes
“Now bring us some figgy pudding!” We small mob of kiddie carolers back in the day are standing in front of your door, wishing you a Merry Christmas, but making demands which become increasingly pushy. “Now bring us some figgy pudding, Now bring some out here….”
And, further, ominously, “We won’t go until we get some….”
(I do not recall getting any, period.)
What exactly was so compelling about figgy pudding? Likely it was a plum or even raisin pudding, or certainly a dried fruit pudding, rather than fig, and the song referenced above, though vaguely attributed to traditions in the West Country of England, was not pinned down and promoted until 1935 when the Bristol-based composer, conductor and organist Arthur Warrell published it as “A Merry Christmas.”
According to Kimberly Killebrew, of The Daring Gourmet, an early figgy pudding “was more of a wet, sticky, thick porridge consisting of boiled figs, water, wine, ground almonds, raisins and honey.”
Later cooks added ground meat and grains to the mix, and later still such evolved into a steamed pudding made with raisins. And brandy. Setting the completed fig-free pudding on fire was part of the fun, too, apparently.
Although… since some food historians claim figgy pudding comprised 13 ingredients, as in Christ and the 12 Apostles, and was served with a sprig of holly up top, i.e. the “crown of thorns,” this might have been construed as a tad over the top, and yet, Christmas in Christian terms denotes the birth of Jesus, rather than his demise, right? Puzzling.
Mind you, many religious traditions have made the fig their own, the most famous of which possibly is the tree in Bihar, India under which Gautama Buddha found wisdom. It’s known as the “bohdi, or enlightenment, tree.” Ficus religiosa. A cutting from this tree was carried to Sri Lanka and planted there in 288 BCE. It survives today, making it supposedly the oldest flowering plant in the world planted by humans.
And the fig tree is one of the earliest plants period, cultivated even before wheat, and possibly even the one that enticed the mythical Eve. Though the apple is often cited as that tempting offering, it cannot compare, surely, to the soft, oozing, often red inside, fig, in seductive terms. (Apples likely originated in Kazakhstan, not really the Middle East nor the Near East, both saidto be the original home of the fig.)
It’s a quick hop from the evocative fig to the fig leaf, which became the covering du jour for male genitalia during the Renaissance. (Children, avert your eyes.) Evidently the Greeks had been okay with guy displays, but covered their female equivalents. Come Christianity, however, it was “oops, we all are damned.” In some cases actual branches were used to cover painted privates, but by the era of Queen Victoria, plaster fig leaves were a booming business. The Queen’s copy of Michelangelo’s “David” was suitably fig-leafed.
Leaping ahead to 2003, Lloyd Kreitzer, known to many Corrales residents as “The Fig Man,” bought his first fig cutting in Albuquerque. He claimed, in a story by High Country News in 2014, that a month later he had 120 fig trees. And also that as a four-year-old, he loved climbing his uncle’s fig tree in Los Angeles.
Kreitzer joined the Peace Corps straight from college, and there dove into tropical agriculture, experiencing practices that enabled him to embrace the fig with some knowledge.
By now Kreitzer reckons he has tasted over 300 fig varieties, and has explored much of New Mexico in search of heritage fig and other fruit trees, including 150 year-old peach orchards in Mogollón.
According to Kreitzer, “ripe figs were for the rich in Europe, dried figs were for the poor.” The fig likely reached Mexico after a lengthy and arduous journey from Spain most likely via the Azores. Saplings would have been packed in boxes and as space allowed, gained spot on ships bound for Mexico, a two and a half month voyage.
These ships were chronically crowded with families and export goods, with shortages of water, yet somehow the fig trees were kept alive until they reached eastern Mexico ports. Thereafter they were transported on ox-drawn carts to Mexico City, a two and half week journey. The ox cart people were mainly concerned with the well being of their ox, first, then their carts, and then the cargo, so it appears that “respect for fig trees helped some arrive safely in Mexico City by 1535.” And from there later reached New Mexico.
Numerous immigrant groups over many generations brought figs with them to New Mexico. Kreitzer relates that in Silver City, in the Chihuahua Hills neighborhood, crypto-Jews planted figs in their front yards to signal that there were Jews living there.
Wherever a walled compound had two connecting walls, a micro-climate was created, and such has been a perfect spot for a fig, especially facing south, at least before the hard-hitting summers of climate change.
Los Poblanos: Historic Inn and Organic Farm in Los Ranchos has had decent success with its fig trees, one of which is said to be over 100 years old.
The Alvarado Hotel, built in Albuquerque in 1901, was the crown jewel of Harvey House hotels serving the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. It was home to numerous fig trees, and the garden manager invited local ranch kids to pick and eat the fruit.
Before The Alvarado was demolished in 1970, cuttings were made of the trees, and “The Fig Man” obtained cuttings of the cuttings. (Figs apparently grow easily from seeds, and from cuttings.) That meant Corrales’ Sandy Gold was able to buy one for her greenhouse about 10 years ago.
“He charged me way too much for it, in a one-gallon pot,” said Gold recently, “About $60.” Repotted into a much larger pot, the fig eventually exploded into the ground, its roots reaching hither and thither, and the tree continues to produce luscious fruit.
Exploding roots in Gold’s greenhouse, built by the Texas Greenhouse Company in about 2003, are not unusual. “Roots seek out other roots,” asserts Gold, whose affinity for encouraging plant life is well known locally.
So Gold’s fig from “The Fig Man” lived, but one in Jane Butel’s possession did not. “Lloyd's tree that was given to me died, though I have a friend with a huge fig tree.”
Southwest cooking guru and author Butel had no figgy pudding recipe but said “I love figs. One of my favorites is fig jam, made with some lemon juice, a bit of rind and fresh lavender. Actually, I make it several ways and it is heavenly on freshly baked cheddar-green chile biscuits.”
So, no figgy pudding from Butel. Maybe no one especially likes it?
My late mom’s fave cookie, the Fig Newton, which the rest of us deeply disliked, was first produced in 1891, and was named after the town of Newton, Massachusetts. The product thrived until joined by other “fruit-filled” biscuits in the 1980s, and was renamed in 2012. Henceforth it and they are known as Newtons.
Still don’t give a fig? Apparently that disparaging comment derives from the Spanish “fico,” or fig, which gave its name to a traditional gesture of contempt made by placing the thumb between the first and second fingers. The gesture was said to be common in Shakespeare's time and was known as “The Fig of Spain.” But why?
The fig — beloved, rude, feared, disliked—what a food!
Herewith, Jane Butel’s fig jam recipe:
Fig/Candied Ginger/Lemon Jam
I have always loved to make jam or preserves. With figs being so sweet, I have varied my basic favorite jam to the following proportions. You do not need to use pectin if you combine some unripe fruit pieces with the riper fruit. This is great for windfalls where you have to cut the bruised portions off.
Fundamentally you use ¾ cup sugar to each 1 cup of chopped fresh fruit. So you can make any sized quantity. If fruit is very sweet, you can cut back a bit on the sugar and add lemon juice —usually about 1 teaspoon lemon juice per cup of fruit or to taste.
Yield: 10, 8 ounce jars of jam
10 cups quartered fresh figs
¼ cup candied ginger, finely minced
1 large lemon, zested and juiced (need at least 2 Tablespoons juice)
6 cups sugar
- Using a deep, heavy bottomed kettle, place the figs, ginger, lemon and sugar in the kettle; and bring to a slow simmer, stirring constantly until the fruit becomes juicy. Then turn up the heat to medium high and boil, continue to stir constantly.
- Meanwhile, using a large flat baking pan —about 9 x 13 inches— place 10, 8-ounce jelly jars upside down with one inch of water in the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil and allow to boil until jam is ready to place in jars. At least five minutes of boiling is needed to prevent bacteria. Meanwhile, keep stirring the jelly.
- When the boil starts to settle down to smaller bubbles and the mixture is visibly thicker and making large bubbles as it boils, test for doneness either with a thermometer or the sheet test. With the thermometer, jams are done when they cook to a temperature of 7 degrees above boiling. For the sheet test, using a large metal spoon, dip the spoon into the mixture and hold vertical to the surface of the jam, tilting the bottom of the spoon back a bit. If the mixture sheets off with two drops on either side of the spoon joining together and sheeting off, then it is done. A second test is to use a small white or light colored plate and place some drops on the plate. Tilt vertically and if the mixture slowly rolls down in long droplets, the jam is done. On the other hand if the mixture runs down, it needs more cooking.
- Take off the heat and stir to make sure the fruit pieces are evenly distributed. Jar the jam by placing a canning funnel, into the sterilized jar and ladle the jam into each to within one inch of the top of the jar. Then, dipping a clean cloth in the hot water used for boiling the jars, use it to clean out the inside of the jar and rub around the top. Dip the lid in the hot water and place rubber side down on the jar and tighten a jar ring as tight as it will go. Set aside on a clean towel. After a few minutes, double-check the jars to make sure the rings are as tight as they can be. Label and store in a dark place and enjoy!
See http://www.janebutelcooking.com All recipes are reprinted with permission from Jane Butel’s publishers.
“The fig is the edible fruit of Ficus carica, a species of small tree in the flowering plant family Moraceae. Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, it has been cultivated since ancient times and is now widely grown throughout the world, both for its fruit and as an ornamental plant. Ficus carica is the type species of the genus Ficus, containing over 800 tropical and subtropical plant species.
A fig plant is a small deciduous tree or large shrub growing up to 7–10 metres (23–33 ft) tall, with smooth white bark. Its large leaves have three to five deep lobes. Its fruit (botanically an infructescence, a type of multiple fruit) is tear-shaped, 3–5 centimetres (1.2–2.0 in) long, with a green skin that may ripen toward purple or brown, and sweet soft reddish flesh containing numerous crunchy seeds. The milky sap of the green parts is an irritant to human skin. In the Northern Hemisphere, fresh figs are in season from late summer to early autumn. They tolerate moderate seasonal frost and can be grown even in hot-summer continental climates.”
And from Wikipedia:
- Figgy or Christmas Pudding Recipe: https://www.daringgourmet.com/christmas-pudding/
Also see The Fig Man http://www.landofenfigment.com/
“There is a special job about being with figs because they are so ancient and so patient. They will be the last plant to leaf or fig in the spring. So do not be surprised if a month or two or five passes and then suddenly they leaf out.” Lloyd Kreitzer, The Fig Man