I’m worried about the figs. Never thought I’d say that, let alone write that, but there you have it. At an inopportune time, I find myself in San Francisco and not at my house-sit in the verdant town of La Crescenta, amid the hills a few miles north of the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Eagle Rock and Echo Park. What’s the issue? Well, the figs are ripening in the backyard of my SoCal digs, and I’m elsewhere. Suddenly, this lifelong urbanite feels like a farmer neglecting his crops.
Allow me to offer a little context. As I’ve written in earlier installments of the column you are reading, the property in La Crescenta has a mini-orchard of fruit-bearing trees on the front lawn and behind the house. They include two naval orange trees; two Valencia orange trees; a tangerine tree; a pair of lemon trees; an avocado tree; and a small tree with branches that are heavy with what I’ve ascertained are clusters of pluots -— supposedly, a cross between a plum and an apricot. But, avocados aside (everyone loves them, and these avocados are particularly creamy and tasty when ready to eat), the crowning glory is a fig tree.
In the past, I’d eaten figs when cooked in Middle Eastern cuisine, couscous in the mix. But I never knew how desirable and delicious figs could be until I picked a ripe one from the tree, washed it off, and ate it then and there, skin and all. These figs were perfumed and succulent and just the right amount of sweet with a hint of tangy. Toss in the citrus and the rest of the edible delights to be found on the premises, and this gift from Mother Earth was enough to turn a guy into a fruitarian. (Is that a thing?) Or inspire one to set up one’s own roadside produce stand. Tough economic times call for creative measures, and when life gives you lemons … and oranges and tangerines and avocados and pluots, you have the marketing option. I never went that far, although my extended family and I have benefitted from the goodies grown at my L.A. getaway.
RIPE AND READY AFTER DARK
The problem I have faced as long as I’ve been at that house is the fig tree’s window of ripeness. Would I be in town when the figs were ready to harvest and eat? Would I be in San Francisco while they ripened on the branch, started to rot, fell off, and became squirrel chow? Last year, I arrived in La Crescenta in the middle of a hot August day after two weeks away and went to the back yard to investigate the state of things. What I discovered was a tree weighed down with dozens of dark purple, over-ripe figs, some bursting open, almost all of them attended by hungry wasps eager to suck on the juices oozing out of the fruit.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I see a swarm of wasps, my inclination is to run -— or, at very least, back away slowly. So that’s what I did: backed away in a deliberate fashion while cursing my winged, sting-loaded enemies. But how to get to the still-viable figs that tantalized me when potentially angry insects barred the way? My solution was simple: Wait until midnight when things had cooled off, and go out to the fig tree to see what I could grab while the wasps slept. It was an inspired idea.
Darkness fell. I grabbed a flashlight and headed back to the fig tree with a plastic bag on my wrist. I discovered that the wasps had indeed returned to their nest, probably to sleep off the effects of fermented fig juice — with one exception. That single wasp was attached to a fig, proboscis stuck on a fissure that had been emitting a sticky compote in the afternoon sun; the fluid had dried out in the cool night air and trapped the greedy creature. He flailed a bit, then became still. I, on the other hand, began to strip the tree of all viable unsullied figs and tossed them into the plastic bag as I plucked away. It was a bounty, for sure. I snatched about 30 figs that night, saving them from the buzzing horde, and sharing them with my friends.
BACK TO THE LAND
I don’t really have what one would call a green thumb. Nonetheless, for literally a couple of decades, I had a potted plant in my Russian Hill living room that somehow thrived. I watered it regularly, but there’s no way it should have lived so long. In truth, it only withered away when I left town for six months on an extended hiatus and forgot to have one of my neighbors water it. When I returned to my apartment and saw the plant’s enfeebled condition, I just decided to put it out of its misery. The empty pot reminds me of my carelessness.
So I am even more diligent with the trees at the La Crescenta house. I pick and prune and make sure they’re properly watered. And I am rewarded almost all year round with nature’s candy — as long as I’m there to gather it up. If I’m a little concerned about the figs at the moment, it’s understandable. Call it one of the drawbacks of living in two places at once. (Damn those wasps!)