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Fanatic gives a fig for the fresh ones


I am now a fresh fig fanatic. I admire the shape of the tree. I fantasize about wrapping myself in its leaves. Mostly I covet its fruit.

I didn't use to feel this way. I once regarded figs as slabs of dried, unfeeling fruit that did their best work hidden deep in fruitcakes.

That all changed one recent fateful evening in a Baltimore back yard. That was where I ate my first fresh fig. It was plucked from a tree by Steven P. Alperin, who grows figs and a variety of other fruit in his family's small back yard in Rodgers Forge.

"Look at this," he said as he pulled some ripe purple Celeste figs from the tree. He gave one to me, one to his wife, Carolyn, a couple to their sons, Jenner, 4, and Will, 11 months.

The adults and the 11 month-old ate the figs and groaned with delight.

"You can't get figs that taste like this in a store," Carolyn said. I agreed. I had never tasted anything that sweet, that fruity.

Moreover, I found fig-eating to be a heady, sensuous experience. It made me think that it was a fig rather and an apple that got Eve in trouble back in the Garden of Eden. Whenever Eve appeared in public, she was, you might remember, wearing fig leaves.

I put myself in Eve's place. I knew that while I might be able to turn down an apple, if tempted by a fresh fig, I was a goner.

In between bites, Alperin reported that this has been a great year for figs. Most years in Baltimore, he added, are not.

Part of the extreme pleasure you get from eating fresh figs, he said, stems from years of frustration. Baltimore is on the border of the fig-friendly climate, he said. The usual pattern of humid summers and cold winters strains the fig's preference for hot, dry weather. In the off years, the tree produces plenty of leaves, but just when fruit is about to ripen in large numbers, the weather turns and the big harvest never happens. In the winter the fig tree has to be covered with plastic to protect it from the cold, he said.

However, this summer, with its combination of hot weather and sparse rainfall, was good news for area fig growers.

"Best crop in years," said Alperin.

He is a big believer in eating your back yard or, as he calls it, "edible landscapes." Two years ago he formed Ecoscapes, an edible-landscape enterprise, that he operates from his home. After coming home from his job with the city school system, he sometimes goes out in his back yard and snacks.

The yard is typical for Baltimore town houses: It is about 30 feet wide and 50 feet long. But in the space he grows raspberries, blueberries, a self-pollinating cherry tree, some fuzz-free kiwi, and the fig tree.

"People always think you need a lot of space or that growing fruit is a lot of work," Alperin said. "But I'm real lazy and I never spray. Once you get it planted and growing, all you have to do is pick the fruit."

The evening I visited, most of the kids on the scene ate raspberries and played with a squirt gun. Meanwhile, the adults fed on naked figs and talked about the possibility of splitting open some of the ripe figs and stuffing them with slices of rolled-up Parma ham.

And after eating my way around Alperin's back yard I have begun to look at my own back yard with new eyes.

Can my dusty bit of Dogpatch be transformed into a bountiful Garden of Eden? Probably not, but the prospect of feasting on fresh figs makes the idea deliciously tempting.

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