“Found” Fig Compote (And A New Tree of Knowledge)

by Maria Theresa Maggi on August 30, 2015

Fig Compote in Pot

I have always been a fan of “found” poetry–that is, wording that inadvertently reads with the resonating “both/and” complexity of  a written poem. Perhaps my favorite all-time found poem came from a documentary about the animals in Madagascar I saw decades ago. I still remember it (or I think I do):

The lemurs escape the afternoon heat in the trees:
no display,
just digestion and friendly  grooming.

But the thing I like best about the “ring” of poetry is that it can extend beyond my attuned ear to my other senses. There can be poetry in the fresh smell of earth after much needed rain (which I recently learned has a word all to itself: petrichor). There can be poetry in what a storm leaves behind. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking, sometimes it’s redemptive–sometimes it’s both, like the best of written poems.

We finally got much needed rain in the northwest this weekend, and we need a lot more, especially to help dowse the huge wildfires burning throughout the region. This rain, however, came with very high winds, at least in Portland–the kind where the curtains fly out into the room and things on patios fall over and rattle around. After the rain, more wind blew out one storm front and helped bring in another. The morning after the first storms blew through, Romeo and I were out taking a walk during a dry but windy interlude. As we were heading home off Alberta Street, we turned onto a side street that has a large fig tree, much of which overhangs the sidewalk. Each time I walk by I count the figs that might be ready, and help myself to one or two that are. They are bright green in color and when they start to turn golden and get soft they are ready to eat. They taste like light and honey. I look forward to every chance I get to eat one.

green figs

The morning after the storm, I discovered the wind had shaken many of the ripe figs higher up on the tree off the branches to the ground. Many that had fallen were smashed, which was sad to me, but some could be salvaged. I hadn’t planned to collect figs, or even buy groceries that trip, so all I had was my raincoat pocket to carry a few home.

There’s another place even more dear to my heart in this new neighborhood that has a fig tree–the Emerson Street Garden, which I wrote about in this recent post. A lovely little garden-in-progress created out of a soil reclamation project of Groundwork Portland, it is a little get-away tucked in between the tightly packed houses. Just inside the wooden gate there is a large fig tree encircled by the gravel path that leads back into the garden. Last night when I was falling asleep I realized that although I hadn’t needed to go down there and water the tomatoes because of the rain, that if Romeo and I walked that way in the morning, we might find some figs had fallen to the ground.

This time I came prepared and I was rewarded for my foresight. Romeo waited patiently as I gathered as many of the fallen fruit as could be salvaged. They didn’t have to be perfect or even really clean; I knew I would bring them home and wash them and then come up with some sugar free concoction inspired by this blueberry one from Potato Strong.


I know there has been lots of conjecture among scholars about whether or not the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden was really an apple tree. or whether the golden apples in the Greek myth were apples at all. Some claim both were far more likely to have been pomegranates, pears, or even persimmons. No one I know of has suggested they were figs. (There must have been a fig tree handy, though, because Genesis refers to both Adam and Eve hiding their sudden awareness of being naked with fig leaves.) But when I look at the Emerson Street Garden fig tree in its wide but compact majesty, standing sentry at the entrance to this fragile new garden in a neighborhood trying to balance peace and community on the heels of  rapid growth and displacement, I can’t help but feel it has the wisdom of ages to share with us, if only we will share ourselves with each other. But unlike the traditional bible story,  it’s no sin to eat of this fruit. Instead we need to, in order to gain a sense of ourselves, our history, our bonds to one another–to, as Joni Mitchell sings, “get ourselves back to the garden.”

There was a second shooting in my neighborhood, farther from my new house, but right where Romeo and I walked last week as we waited for the Urban Farm Collective market to open. I remember thinking the little school park was uncommonly quiet and empty as we strolled through, and I thought of a fun conversation I had had earlier there this summer, when some folks sitting around one of the picnic tables wanted to know if Romeo was a greyhound. “He’s a sighthound, like a greyhound, but with long hair” I said, and then I told them the fancy name of the breed, Silken Windhound.  One of the guys had a twinkle in his eye. “Like a greyhound with an Afro,” he said. “Yes!” I said, and we all laughed.

But now there was no one here. It was so quiet it was unsettling, but I brushed it off, not wanting to be too dramatic or fearful. It would be days before I learned that just a couple of hours before we walked through another gang-related shooting had occurred and a young woman was shot in the hand. Mercifully she’s alright. There will be a neighborhood meeting right in the park this week to discuss the facts of the shooting and how we can work together to keep the neighborhood safe. Romeo and I will be there.

After I post this recipe here, I will copy  a short version of it out in a playful way on art paper and post it beneath the glass on the bulletin board at the Emerson St. Garden. I hope it might entice any other neighbors walking by the garden to enter and pick some figs. The making of this simple fig compote feels like poetry to me, too. It helps me make real the neighborhood I want to live in.  A place where the sharing of something sweet between neighbors, and common care for one another can put an end to random violence. I think of it as a kind of edible prayer–fruiting from a tree that helps old wrong-headed knowledge turn a new leaf.


Maria (moonwatcher)

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gloria August 31, 2015 at 11:40 am

Your Fig compote sounds delicious, and your neighborhood walk sounds wonderful (despite the shooting).


2 Maria Theresa Maggi August 31, 2015 at 1:44 pm

Thank you Gloria! Yes, my neighborhood walks are filled with wonder, and I feel very lucky to have landed in this neighborhood, challenges and all.


3 Veronica September 1, 2015 at 8:54 am

We have a small fig tree, but alas, it looks like we might only get 2 figs out of it this year… It’s been so dry, and though I’ve watered, probably not regularly enough. Perhaps next year! But we are seeing delicious & plentiful figs at the market, so perhaps I’ll get a pint or two of those. 🙂
My mom was visiting over the weekend, and somehow dogs came up in conversation, and my husband was all, “you should see Maria’s dog, seems pretty perfect.” She had never heard of a silken wolfhound (neither had I until Romeo!), and thought he was beautiful. And your description of his temperament makes him even more so.
I’m sorry to hear about another shooting. It is good that your community is banding together to try to figure out a solution to make the area safer. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.


4 Maria Theresa Maggi September 1, 2015 at 10:29 am

HI Veronica! Oh, I’m the type that will spend a million dollars on figs when I find them, I love them so much. So just “finding” them like this in my neighborhood is a form of heaven for me. I hope your tree kicks in after another season or two. I’d love to have a fig tree. Thanks for passing on the great words about Romeo from your husband! Glad your Mom thought him beautiful. He’s pretty darn hard to resist. 🙂 Thanks, too, for kind words about shooting, and holding good thoughts. Much appreciated. xoxo


5 Gena September 1, 2015 at 12:18 pm

As always, this is just too beautiful, Maria. I love the recipe–I think for me, this will be spread onto toast or spooned onto hot oatmeal or quinoa in the morning. Steven will eat it on ice cream. We’ll both love it, because figs are ambrosia indeed!

It’s also great to hear you evoke so much of your new neighborhood in this post–I can hear the poetry of your surroundings all the way here in NYC! xo


6 Maria Theresa Maggi September 1, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Thank you Gena! I am thrilled you find this simple recipe so appealing, that it’s one both you and Steven will enjoy. I so agree, figs are absolutely ambrosial! And it also makes me very happy that I succeeded in helping you hear the poetry in my new surroundings all the way in NYC–that’s the best ever. 🙂


7 Lee at Veggie Quest September 2, 2015 at 9:59 am

Hi Maria, fresh figs are a gift from above–I’m delighted you have a fig tree so close to you! When I lived in North Carolina, a friend had one in her yard, and eating from it was pure bliss. As it stands now, I have to depend on the fickle mercies of the farmer’s market and Whole Foods.

Also, I like your theory that maybe the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden wasn’t an apple tree at all, but a fig tree. Although I still can’t help but believe that Eve was framed… 😉


8 Maria Theresa Maggi September 2, 2015 at 12:12 pm

Hi Lee, I SO agree with you that figs are a gift from above–so it feels like heaven to have arrived in a neighborhood where there are several fig trees! I love you phrase “fickle mercies” with regard to finding them in the stores. I resort to that (and pay the requisite millions) when necessary, especially as fall approaches. I just need to have my figs! 🙂 You made me laugh about Eve being framed. The biblical tree of knowledge may not have had figs on it, but E and A sure knew to grab the leaves from it when they were “caught.” (I just edited my blog post to reflect that.) Thanks for being a fellow-sister fig lover!! 🙂


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