“Where I grew up, grown men did not eat grilled figs with baby greens and artisanal goats’ milk cheese.”
My maternal grandparents, Grace and Mitchell Walters, came from warm, happy-go-lucky Irish stock, and their house in Mississippi became my place of refuge, where I was treated to much love and affection, not to mention the best food I’ve ever eaten. The aromas of their joyous house will forever be imprinted in my brain: a mix of rendered bacon, fresh-baked biscuits, strong coffee, and tobacco. It’s hard for me to walk down a street in New Orleans—or Paris, for that matter—without smelling similar aromas that instantly take me back to my childhood.
Their house looked like somebody’s country place, with big porches front and back and rocking chairs.
A typical scene: sitting on the front porch shelling peas. They might have had air-conditioning, but they didn’t use it. I was always drawn to their kitchen to be with my grandmother and Ruth, a woman who worked “with” her, never “for” her. And I’d be Ruth’s helper.
A whistle would blow at noon at the sawmill in those timber-driven towns, which meant the entire population was off until 2:00 p.m. Lunch was the big meal, and they’d serve whatever was in season: lady peas, creamer peas, purple hull peas, or dried peas cooked with fatback or ham hocks. And, always, greens: mustard, collard, turnip. My grandfather made a vinegar sauce for greens with the little hot peppers he called “sport” peppers. There was corn bread and corn sticks that we’d bake in those black cast-iron pans. Bacon fat from breakfast would sit in a coffee can on the stove, and on special occasions we’d cook up a batch of cracklins bread to have with rutabagas or turnips, cooked with onions and salt pork. There’d be buttermilk and sweet milk and always long-grain Mahatma rice. There would be sliced tomatoes, heirlooms, like our Brandywines, picked just before they split. Later in the season, when blight set in, you’d pick those tomatoes green and cut and fry them.
There might be meat: venison, wild turkey, chicken, pork shoulder, or Boston butt picnic ham. It was always braised—they’d have called it “smothered”—with lots of onions, a little celery, and water, covered like a pot roast and cooked until the meat fell from the bone. Fridays had to be fish—bass or perch. Always there were pickles, put up every year—bread-and-butter, green tomato, onion, and quail egg; sweet and sour, with mustard seed and bay leaves. I became Granddaddy’s apprentice in all things that required planting, harvesting, butchering, and bottling.
Not to get off the subject, but breakfast was an event, too: smoked pork sausage links, thick-sliced bacon cooked to medium, real grits—the slow-cooked, buttery kind. There were fresh eggs, of course, and cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, and berries. And, of course, fig preserves—not the syrup that I’d drizzle on biscuits but preserved figs taken from the jar and put into a bowl on the kitchen table. Those figs didn’t die with breakfast; they’d reappear as a sweet glaze over a smoked ham or became part of a barbecue sauce, to be blended with vinegar, sliced hot pepper, and mustard and basted over slabs of smoked baby back ribs or beef brisket.
Granddaddy had fig trees, pear, plum, and quince trees, and scuppernong and muscadine vines. Peaches we would buy from a nearby farm, and we’d pick blackberries and huckleberries, which would make their way into a jar or two. Since we could not possibly eat it all, preserving was the best way to hold on to the essence of the fruit. In his heart of hearts, my grandfather believed cooking should be left to the women, but preserving was the man’s job. He wouldn’t let just anybody learn the process with him. If you committed to making preserves, it was not a 30-minute affair. You had to pick the fruit, clean it, cook it, and strain it and sterilize the jars, the lids. For me, even though it took way too long on the structured part to get to the eating part, preserving meant working with Granddaddy for the whole day, and that was the great thing.
Figs have long since had a special place in my heart and cupboard because Granddaddy was the connoisseur of preserved figs. Celeste figs were the king and the only variety he knew. If you were given a jar of his fig preserves, you knew you were somebody. The fig jar was always a topic of conversation in their house, especially after my grandfather took ill; as it turned out, he had jars of fig preserves stashed in various cabinets, armoires, and utility rooms. We didn’t know how old some of those jars were, and we dared not ask; if you were offered a fig, you’d better eat it.
We ate those aged figs out of blind faith, as if to confirm our love and admiration for Granddaddy.
Figs weren’t eaten raw, nor were they grilled, fried, or baked. His figs met with only one certain fate: The Jar. To preserve the whole fig in syrup is an art form. Mishandle the figs, and they could crush, crack, rupture, or break. The perfect figs should be washed, trimmed, and softly poached in a simple syrup of sugar and water, gently packed into jars, covered with the reduced syrup, and sealed. No spices were added to Granddaddy’s figs, which were unlike the preserved figs that Father Roux gives us every Christmas along with blue cheese. Father Roux’s figs are perfumed with Meyer lemon peel and rosemary or bay leaves.
Granddaddy would never hear of that; the ripe fig was all the spice he desired.