A Dish Best Served Cold... With Figs

By Louise Ducote
Photography by Sarah Bork Hamilton

Last summer I developed an intense craving for fresh figs. Each Saturday at the Sunset Valley Farmers’ Market I bought two or three pounds of the expensive little suckers, came straight home to our screened back porch and ate every last one myself (fortunately my children don’t care for them). This would be early afternoon, and I’d often hear our young next door neighbors gearing up for their day...

...that is, sitting out in their driveway smoking cigarettes and listening to rap music, perhaps contemplating whether the party that night would last until 4:00 a.m. or whether they’d turn in early at 2:00. I’d eat my figs, look out at the garden and listen to their dumb conversation with an energizing contempt.

One September morning at the market, the teenager from whom I bought the figs raised her eyebrows very slightly at my loot and said, “Next week will probably be the last.” So it was. Summer over. I planted a fig tree and looked forward to the colder weather that keeps the partying neighbors indoors. We hear them, but it’s as if they’re next door instead of, say, in our bedroom.    

Not far into the figless part of the year, I started reading Homer’s Odyssey aloud to my sons. It’s a simple story: while Odysseus takes the scenic route home from the Trojan War, some young guys try to steal his wife and his stuff. Odysseus is a great protagonist—smart and eloquent and capable of screwing up terribly. You hope he survives his own flaws long enough to get home and teach those young creeps a lesson. Even with the sex and the most violent parts edited out by the discriminating mother, The Odyssey rips along swiftly and satisfyingly toward one of my favorite things: revenge.

At a very low point, Odysseus comes to the palace of King Alkínoös, where he will beg for a ship to take him home—no small request. Exhausted from years of war and sea travel, his own ship wrecked and his crew dead, Odysseus pauses at the palace entrance to look over the gardens: “four spacious acres planted with trees in bloom or weighted down for picking: pear trees, pomegranates, brilliant apples, luscious figs, and olives ripe and dark. Fruit never failed upon these trees.” The description continues in such detail as to make a gardener want to get up off the back porch and turn that compost pile, thin those carrot seedlings, and get even with another few dozen of the snails that cause the veggies to fail upon the soil.

Desire for revenge is, I believe, the most sustainable of emotions. It doesn’t exhaust like anger. It’s not elusive, like happiness. It motivates, it matures with the help of purely local resources, and, unlike love, can be enjoyed all by one’s little self. Contrary to the saying, it is not sweet. Its sweetness is layered with bitterness; its flavor is fermented and complex. Figs are sweet; revenge is savory.

Odysseus eventually delivers a painful death to all the young slackers who tried to steal his wife and riches in his absence. I conceived my own plan for vengeance one recent Saturday, when my noisy little neighbors started plotting a garden. Surely it will not succeed, unless spilled beer and cigarette ashes are the gardening secret I’ve been missing. I watched happily as they fired up a tiller. (I’m anti-tilling… why not just drive a train through your soil?)Then I slowly, thrillingly realized that all those snails I capture in the very early mornings, when the partiers are probably a few degrees shy of a coma, might enjoy getting launched over to some yummy new real estate. The very next morning I relocated 27 of the lettuce-chomping pests, instead of drowning them in soapy water like I usually do. How sustainable of me! It’s a thought to savor in the middle of the night when I’m awake listening to second-hand rap music, waiting for the figs of Central Texas to ripen.