In Italy, especially the southern part of the country where my family came from, they had the luxury of being surrounded by fragrant lemon trees, olive trees, and yes, fig trees. Lemon or olive trees would never survive the harsh Brooklyn winters, but there must have been something in that black soil that agreed with fig trees because they flourished. Even my father, who wasn’t exactly Johnny Appleseed, was proud of his fig tree. Every year in the fall, he would put on his “work clothes” (for him that meant taking off his necktie) and initiate the “fig tree protection ritual.”
I doubt you would find this in any gardening textbook, but my Dad would first wrap the tree completely using old burlap sacks. Then he would use an old carpet to wrap around the burlap sacks. Finally, he took black tar paper and created a third layer, tying rope around everything to hold it together. Now that the king was properly robed, the crown would be put in place. Over the top of the tree he placed an empty wooden bushel. I think the purpose of all this was to keep water away from the tree, since if the roots froze, bye-bye figs. The technique must have worked because we got figs every year, as did our neighbors whose trees were similarly adorned.
My first taste of the figs from that tree was almost my last. Figs take a while to ripen on the tree. They start out green and hard, perfect projectiles for whipping at birds and cats. By late summer they soften and turn a purplish color. As a kid I remember how impatient I was waiting for the figs to be ready to eat. One day I downed about 10 figs that looked ripe to me; they weren’t and I got sick as a dog. I never told my parents, but I think they suspected when at dinner that night I had only two helpings of everything because my stomach just didn’t feel right.
The almost mystical connection between Italian-Americans and fig trees was probably severed by my generation. Even though we moved out of Brooklyn and into the suburbs where we had more room to plant a garden, most of us did not include a fig tree. I think part of the reason was to distance ourselves from the old-time Italians that were called "Moustache Petes" and who we almost felt ashamed of. We were second-generation Americans looking to embrace American ways and cut the old ties. Their old-world ways belonged to the past.
As I grew older, things changed. The “Italian” part of Italian-American became more important to me. I believe now that although I live in America, there is still a part of me that belongs to Italy. My son and his wife have made several trips there and have come back full of enthusiasm for the culture and the people. Seeing the excitement in them has helped reawaken in me a feeling of pride in the birthplace of my ancestors, and a determination to keep the Italian traditions alive in our family for my grandchildren.
As a visible reminder of this obligation, I hereby promise to plant a fig tree in my back yard and dedicate it to all the Moustache Petes who paved the way for ingrates like me. I only hope the miserable red clay soil of Staten Island treats it kindly.
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