A vegan TV show about Travel and Food
I grew up in the midwestern United States, with parents who were always relatively health and nutrition conscious. I personally didn’t have a hugely detrimental sweet tooth as a kid, typically preferring treats in the vein of strawberries or cherries over chocolate kisses or jawbreakers. I liked pies and shortcakes and crumbly things my mom made with blueberries. In the realm of packaged cookies, my favorites were these jam-filled oatmeal things, and Fig Newtons(tm) and their no-name clones, Fig Bars. I liked them because they had fruit in them and fruit was something I liked.
I ate fig-filled bars for ages. From the plastic trayed packages my mom would regularly supply from the store, and later when I was a young adult discovering co-op groceries and whole grains and organics, I would purchase them in unpackaged bulk from the bins at my south Minneapolis cooperative market. I liked them because they were sweet but not TOO sweet, the texture was soft and comforting but wow, you could feel the little tiny seeds that reminded you that you’re eating something good for you.
Eventually, at the same co-op, my attention was caught by hand-twisted bags of dried calimyrna figs. I remember thinking “huh! That’s what figs look like!” These were shriveled, wrinkly, chewy nuggets that encased that familiar seedy sweet innard that I knew from my years as a fig cookie enthusiast. I liked them. A lot. I switched over from eating cookies to eating these figs in their pure state.
And so it was that I enjoyed figs for several more years, with nary a thought about these leathery nuggets and what they represented. It wasn’t until I was in Venice, Italy in the summer of 2008 that I was visited by an epiphany.
I was renting an apartment there for one month, attending language classes at the Istituto Venezia. I would regularly visit produce stalls that lined the sidewalks to pick up things like tomatoes, basil, and other familiar items that were in season at the time. I had seen a lot of fruits and specimens that were not familiar to me and had yet to try everything, and frankly wasn’t all that curious for some reason.
In my daily language classes I had befriended the only other American at the school, and not just because we had a common nationality. She was an awesome lady. A museum architect a handful of decades my senior, she had worked and lived and traveled in countries and places I had yet only dreamed of. With a quick-to-laugh demeanor and no shortage of stories to tell, she was an ideal study partner who quickly developed into my Venice Buddy. She was currently on self-directed sabbatical, kinda like me, just hanging out in Venice learning the language because she wanted to. She invited me over to her rental for dinner one warm evening, where she had prepared pasta with mushrooms and eggplant. After dinner she put out a bowl of these bulbous, green fruits I had seen in the market stall that very morning.
“What IS that?” I asked.
“They’re FIGS” she said, a little askance that I had to ask.
“What do you mean they’re figs?” I had seen figs, I bought them by the bag at my co-op. Figs were crumpled and greyish brown, not juicy and green and plump with pleasingly variegated stripey patterns.
“Girl, trust me, they’re fresh figs. You probably can’t get them in the midwest.”
I stared for a minute, taking all this in. I felt like the world’s biggest fruit-incompetent dumbass. How was it that I never thought about dried figs being…dried? Why didn’t I ever think to wonder what they looked like with their natural juices intact? For that matter, why hadn’t I thought to wonder how they grew? Did they come off of a bush, or a vine, or a tree? Before my eyes there danced a taunting montage of all the Italian Renaissance art I had been consuming all summer. We all know Italian nude paintings and sculptures are famous (at list in certain giggly American contexts) for their once-requisite modesty fig leaves. Why didn’t I EVER ONCE think about the fact that a fig leaf and a fig fruit must somehow be connected?! Imagine the whole cast of characters on the Sistine Chapel ceiling doing a Monty Python-esque chorus line, sticking out their tongues, crossing their eyes, and wiggling their backsides at me, because I am such an idiot. Of course figs grew in Italy. Of course they grew somewhere. Of course figs were a fruit. I knew this all along, I just never KNEW it.
So there, in Italy, I experienced my first fresh fig. It was juicy, soft, supple…and bursting with that familiar delicate seeded texture that carries through even to generic fig bars in middle America. I feel a little embarrassed that it took me a trip overseas to find something that I had been taking for granted my whole life, but I enjoy this story as an exemplary instance of the small ways in which international travel allows you to open your eyes and see the familiar all anew.