Fresh figs remind me of the beauty of the seasons.
While standing number six in the queue at the grocery store, I mourned long-lost freedoms and the hedonism of impulsive shopping. The physical distancing made number six feel remote, if not exilic.
“It’s good for me,” I reasoned. “Because of my usual reckless habits, I need structure, discipline, and patience.”
Two “elders” jumped the queue and were immediately ushered inside. Although they were masked, I noticed that their crow’s feet were not any deeper nor more authentic than mine.
“What if I jumped the queue? Would anyone stop me and ask for identification and proof?”
Immediately, I felt ashamed of my pettiness. I quieted the swell of irritation with thoughts of my parents. I wouldn’t want them to be called out, nor would I want them to be denied the rare privilege of being recognized and appreciated for their time on the planet.
This is who I want to be.
I settled into my station at number six and envisioned my entry into the store like one imagines world peace or condominiums on Mars: an interesting and worthy thought, though probably not in this lifetime.
When I graduated to number three, after what seemed like an epoch, I caught a glimpse of the display at the door:
“Black Mission Figs. $3.99.”
Clamshells upon plastic clamshells, full of deep purple plumpness.
In the midst of preoccupation, anxiety, uncertainty, angst, and the blur of oblivion (willful and not), Earth continued its orbit around the sun, as it always had.
It was Fig Season. My favorite time of year.
I’ve been in San Francisco for a quarter of a century, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. I remember where I used to live: little Iowa towns with barren main streets, sprawling yards, and fantasies of escape; Minneapolis, with its interminable winters, scars and trophies of my rites of passage, and an enduring sense of wonder about the perennial survival of albino squirrels; and New York, the mistress with whom I’ll always remember a delightful, provocative, stimulating, and regrettably temporary tryst.
I used to live there. San Francisco has become home. I still feel lucky to live here.
No matter how long I live in San Francisco, though, with all of its virtues, I will never make peace with the fog.
While others in practically every other part of the country celebrate “summer” in June, July, and August by grilling and dining outside in the warmth of the evening, wearing linen shirts and short pants, and going for walks amidst a revelry of frogs and cicadas, we San Franciscans don our woolen caps and sweaters, if we go out at all past 4 pm.
This is the “upside down.”
When I make the trek from my garage to the front door of my building, carrying two bags of groceries as the wind howls and the sheets of fog summon memories of Midwestern blizzards, I curse the bleakness and the chill. I think of Pa Ingalls, traipsing through snowfields, bearing salt pork and hardtack for Half-Pint in the lean-to on the prairie. I pray for September.
September is our redemption. September is our reward. September means summer is here, San Francisco-style.
I anticipate September with deep desire. A beggar’s hunger. A Republican’s greed. An orphan’s belonging. A nun’s lust.
Around September, for two all-too-short months, we have summer. Delayed, deprived, denied…but eventually.
I had never eaten a fresh fig until I moved to California. Prior to my being here, I wasn’t even sure where they came from.
My grandfather Frank ate Fig Newtons. Though they were sweet, my sisters and I didn’t eat them. The newtons were a snack that you needed to grow into. They were soft, and the seeds were a little crunchy. Fig Newtons tasted like mincemeat pie, too, which my grandfather also liked. Such complexity was beyond us. Oreos and Chips Ahoy were for youngsters, like we were. Fig Newtons required maturity, coffee, and the newspaper.
Even if we didn’t eat Fig Newtons, we liked Mary Anzalone’s cookies. Mary and Tony Anzalone had been neighbors of my grandparents. I don’t remember them well, but I remember the feeling of going to their house. We were from the provinces. The Anzalones, perhaps the last generation of Italian-in-America-without-having-to-be-hyphenated, were old world, ethnic, exotic, and flavorful. A trip to their house was a transport to another place.
Mary Anzalone made cucidati. Figs, walnuts, dates, and marmalade in a short dough cookie. Not as sweet as a sugar cookie, but not a shortbread, either. They were glazed with white icing, decorated with multi-colored sprinkles. They weren’t soft, like Fig Newtons, but crumbly and light. These cookies weren’t like anything we had had before. The cucidati made us feel worldly and cosmopolitan. Mary Anzalone sent some home with my grandmother. My aunt, upon hearing the news of the visit and always at the ready to claim her share, called to warn my grandmother that we shouldn’t eat them all. The cookies were coveted and rare — a temptation for scavengers, gluttons, and hoarders like us.
My great-grandfather José spoke with heavily-accented English. He taught us words and phrases in Spanish. He was old world and exotic, too, though we didn’t see him that way.
They love figs in Spain, where we are from. Higos. Spain is the largest producer of figs in Europe. Our ancestral love of figs, and our Spanishness, did not survive. Through an orchestrated campaign of assimilation and erasure, we became American. Midwestern. Absorbed.
Somewhere between the port of entry, New Orleans, and the site of settlement, Kansas City, we lost who we were, or at least a part of us. Thank goodness for the Anzalones — friends, but not kin. Italians, not Spanish. Cucidati, not Fig Newtons. They taught me to love figs. I should have known that I loved them all along, but I didn’t. The Anzalones remembered whence they came. The Lopez family forgot.
Before I was even in the store, I had fresh figs in my basket. I bought onions, garlic, tomatoes, yogurt, and beans, too, though the figs were my prize. I hadn’t remembered that it was fig season until I arrived. Time, and the seasons, had escaped me.
Fig season means warmth. I want the sun. On my face, on my skin. More than a week ago, it was in the mid-90s, even here in San Francisco.
I loved it.
And then there was lightning. And thunder. Summer came with thunderstorms. We never have thunderstorms in San Francisco.
Fig season has come to mean fire season, too, unfortunately. The thunderstorms started the fires. The smoky, foul air doesn’t augur well for our summer. I wish the two hadn’t become conflated. In this year of so many disappointments, might we have a little sun? A little warmth? Without drama or controversy?
Maybe it’s too much to ask this year. Bargaining with the universe, and climate crisis, seems meaningless.
I rushed to unpack the groceries so that I could have a fresh fig.
I washed and sliced open two figs. They felt soft to the touch.
I smiled when I saw the pinkish insides, with the seeds and the gash-like indent in the middle. I remember when my nephew and niece wouldn’t eat them because they said fresh figs looked like buttholes.
They do, indeed…and ripened cheese smells like shit, steamed cauliflower smells like farts, and cumin smells like unwashed armpits. So we go…
I ate the first fig with gusto. It was as good as I remembered. My annual delight. The seeds softly crunched beneath my teeth, like snow under boots or the barest sound of gravel under tires. The second went down even more easily. It was both sweet and musty. I wondered if the mustiness keeps us from confusing them with strawberries. I thought of washing a third or a fourth, but I stopped myself. I applauded my restraint.
I threw away the stems of the figs and walked over to the sliding glass door. It was foggy outside, and the view was milky and wet. The smoke from the wildfires sullied the air in a shade of pale yellow, as if the city just smoked a cigarette.
“Wherever they grow figs, I’ll bet it’s summer,” I surmised, and I felt a twinge of envy.
Whether it is my birthright or an acquired taste, I love figs. I have learned to eat them with ancestral glee and knowing. I claim them as my own. Yes, I can have the dried ones any time, but I want the fresh ones. They are only available in the summer, and even then, just briefly.
I’m holding out for summer. When I feel most vibrant. When I can sit out on my balcony and eat sweet, ripe figs as the sun shines upon my pale skin.
I, too, have my seasons.
Summer is short. I am waiting, disciplined and patient, for the structure and timeliness of its arrival.