A tasty reminder of a faraway home
The climate in New York City is supposedly too cold for figs. But hundreds of fig trees grow in Astoria, Queens. They were brought from the Old World by Italian and Greek immigrants, whose descendants now lovingly care for them.
In the late 1950s, Miguel Angelo Zafarana sailed to New York from his home in Sicily. Within a few years, he'd settled in Astoria, Queens, among New York's large Italian-American community and had opened a pizzeria. At some point - his grandson Mario Zafarana doesn't know when - Miguel Angelo welcomed a visitor from his native village. In his luggage, the visitor carried a special present for his host: a cutting from a fig tree back home.
Today, Mr. Zafarana lives in Astoria himself, and last summer he planted a descendant of that tree in his garden. He hopes to have his first crop of figs next year. A cutting from his grandfather's tree had produced an offspring in the Bronx, where Zafarana grew up. He snipped his sapling from that second-generation tree, as did his Uncle Santino, who took his along when he moved to California in 1982.
Surely bringing a fig tree to California, home of the second-largest commercial fig crop in the world, is like bringing coals to Newcastle?
"That tree came from Sicily, from our village of [Polizzi] Generosa," Zafarana explains. "It's our heritage."
Stories like this one can be heard all over Astoria, a modest community of attached homes and low-rise, pre-World War II apartment buildings that have aspirational names such as the Princess Rita and the Astoria Chateau. Mario, who works as a gardener in Central Park, estimates that one-third of the homes have a fig tree, or more often two, in their yards.
There is no way to know for sure. While the city takes a census of public trees in parks and public rights of way every 10 years, there is no central databank for yard trees.
Moreover, fig trees don't belong in New York City. It's too cold.
The US Department of Agriculture has developed hardiness zones, which tell gardeners what will survive where. The higher the number, the warmer the climate is. Fig trees are supposed to grow in Zones 8 to 10. New York City is in Zone 7.
"I don't suppose they have olive trees there?" laughs Fiona Watt, chief of forestry and horticulture for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, when asked about the fig trees in Queens.
For the record, no.
Above and beyond botany, it seems extraordinary - enchanting - to find a piece of the Mediterranean flourishing in hyper-urban New York City, just across the East River from Manhattan.
But walk along the streets of working-class Astoria in late summer and look past the mom-and-pop butcher shops with skinned goats in the window, the dollar stores, the Greek nightclubs, and the hole-in-the-wall restaurants feeding harried cab drivers. Peer into postage-stamp-size backyards, between buildings, and down narrow alleyways.
There, you'll find hundreds of leafy, thriving fig trees heavy with the voluptuous, teardrop-shaped fruit. The trees were planted not just by Italians, who came to the neighborhood after World War I, but also by Greeks, who moved into the area in great numbers beginning in 1965.
"All Greeks, if they have their own homes, they have a garden. And all Greeks plant fig trees," says Christina, who answered the phone at Astoria's St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral. She declined to give her last name, but she was happy to talk about fig trees - her family has two.
"Figs are very popular in Greece. Greeks love figs," says Nicos Nicolaides, a social worker at the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee. He can see two fig trees from his office window.
"The tree reminds them of their country," he says. "That shows something about the Greeks in Astoria. They like to keep their Greek heritage and their Greek customs, even the trees."
He might have been speaking of Evgenios Anninos, who came to America 45 years ago from the island of Kefalonia and now owns a real estate business. Ask him about his figs, and his eyes light up. Mr. Anninos walks through his office to a door at the back. In the small courtyard, surrounded on three sides by walls and buildings, are two lush fig trees. The pair dominate the tiny space, a sheltered spot that protects them from the elements.
His trees came from "an Italian," he explains, because the suckers he brought back "secretly" from a trip to Kefalonia refused to fruit. He tells about the figs from his sister's tree in Greece ("as big as oranges"), about the many more varieties of figs in Greece, and about the several varieties he grows at his office and at his home, also in Astoria.
Every year in late August, when the crop is ready, Anninos shares his harvest with friends, "all the people who know about figs," as he describes them. "If you don't know, you don't like them. But if you know, it's the best food around."
Americans don't know about figs, he adds. That group includes his own children, who grew up in the United States, and don't like the fruit.
As the neighborhood becomes a hodgepodge of newer immigrants from other (mostly non-fig-growing) countries, will the trees survive?
Ms. Watt, the forestry and horticulture chief, speculates they won't. Because they are not suited to New York winters, fig trees require some tender, loving care.
They must be wrapped, or at the very least mulched, to keep them warm and snug. If there's a "freaky warm period" during the winter, as Zafarana calls it, the trees must be unwrapped or they'll rot. Sometimes a pail is placed on the top of a tree to ensure that it stays dry.
Furthermore, fig trees don't propagate themselves here, so to grow a new one, a root sucker at a tree's base must be bent into the soil and forced to form new roots. Once it has, the sucker is cut off from the mother tree and is ready for planting.
None of this is difficult, but it does require interest and know-how.
Be that as it may, longtime Astoria resident Lucia Trabold, a self-described non-gardener, has never bothered to wrap her tree or otherwise give it special care. Still, it is "humongous," she says. Even after a winter as harsh as this past one, it's flourishing.
The tree is the offspring of an offspring of a tree that her father lovingly nurtured in their yard in the Bronx, where Ms. Trabold grew up. Like a beloved family heirloom, cuttings of the fig tree are handed down through the generations. Trabold has given offshoots to her son, who lives in New Jersey, and is now rooting a sucker for her daughter.
Trabold gets a good crop of figs, despite her benign neglect. Just about all of the fig trees in Astoria are astonishingly prolific. Usually, though, they produce just one crop each year; trees in California and other warm climates with a longer season fruit twice. The first figs are said to be bigger, the second sweeter.
So what do New Yorkers who are fortunate enough to have fig trees in their gardens do with their riches? (And they are riches. Fresh figs cost a pretty penny in the Big Apple.)
They eat them as is, most Astorians say, straight from the tree. "By the time you pick them, you have eaten half of them," Trabold confesses.
"Figs cannot travel, and you cannot pick them before they are ripe," Anninos, the real estate man, insists. "You cut them right off the tree, and you eat them."
Has he ever tasted figs from an American supermarket?
Anninos makes a face. "Nothing," he says, shaking his head in disgust. "They are nothing."
As for Zafarana, he reports that his girlfriend "makes something really good: sautéed, bacon-wrapped figs with goat cheese." But," he adds, "I'd never find it at my grandmother's. I think Nina got the recipe from Bon Appétit."
To his grandfather - to Greeks and Italians all over Astoria - figs were not an exotic luxury, and he didn't need an American gourmet magazine telling him how to gussy them up. Each morning when they were in season, Miguel Angelo strolled through his American backyard, looking for the sweet, jammy taste of home.
For breakfast, as his grandson remembers it, Miguel Angelo would eat "a nice fresh loaf of bread, figs, a cup of coffee, maybe cheese. That's it."