Figs & Joy {In the unlikeliest of places}

l.i.c., ny

Far be it from a Midwestern Methodist to be so bold as to make deals with God. It has always been in my nature to believe He was always there, gently guiding and providing. But a few years ago, when I was reading a book on spirituality by a well-known guru, I was struck that the author wrote that she had a pact with God.  Whenever she doubted something in life, she would ask for a little token to remind her He was there.

Ever since then, whenever I see something growing in an unlikely place, particularly something edible {like a fruiting cherry tree growing stubbornly out of cracked concrete on a city block, or purslane pushing wildly out of a neglected flower bed shaded by towering buildings}, it has become a subtle reminder that out of ugliness can come beauty; a simple lesson of seek and ye shall find.


A few weeks ago, when we were shooting my cookbook in Queens, there were a thousand details that needed my care.  Some seemed to require monumental effort, and I wasn’t sure how we would get everything we needed gathered in one place. The day before the 6-days of shooting began, Lillian and Lindsay, my food styling assistant duo extraordinaire, ran to the local Greek market several blocks away on my behalf to pick up the remaining produce for the shoot.

I had all the shots laid out in my mind, and though I thought it was still early for figs in New York, I had a vision of a dreamy bowl of them—the quiet stillness of their tear shape with all the surprise and delight of their glimmering goodness hidden inside.

“I know it’s a long shot, but look for beautiful figs,” I called as they ran out the door.

The two came back an hour later, bubbling over a bag of tiny purple figs, some still dewy as if they had just been picked straight from a tree. They nearly exploded with excitement as they told me how they had found them sitting heaped in a big enamel bowl behind a chain link fence just a few blocks down from me. While they poked about, out came a gentleman farmer who sold them several handfuls of his freshly harvested figs for just two dollars.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Two dollars for bag full of ripe, locally grown figs? I had been prepared to pay a small fortune for them, or for the likely event that the figs they found might have come from Chile, or Morocco. How had I lived in this neighborhood for almost three years and not known I could buy fresh figs right down the block? 

In many ways, the figs became the token reminder during that harried week, that there are beautiful and good things always within our reach, sometimes rather easily. And they turned out to be the star of more than one of my favorite shots in the book {which you’ll have to wait to see}. 

After the dust of the shoot settled, I met Lindsay for dinner and a date to hunt down the fig man. He was there, just as they had described, behind a chain link fence with his pot of plump purple and green figs just waiting for the curious.

The curious, in this case {me}, turned out to have many questions. How many figs trees did he have? How long did they take to get that big? Where did he learn to grow them? 

While we talked, I learned that our fig man’s name is Antonio, and that he had planted the three sprawling fig trees in the side yard of his row house over the last ten years. Through the fence, he gave us a little tour of his garden and told us of the hard work it takes to keep it all going.

“I’m 88 1/2 years old, you know,” He volunteered.

“Well, I would have guessed 72!” 

“I wish I knew everything I know now when I was 72!”


Antonio came from his home near the border of Italy and Croatia to Astoria many moons ago. I’m so glad he did, for he provided me with figs and joy in the unlikeliest of places, and a divine reminder that sometimes, out of nowhere, our needs are met. If only we are looking.


Lindsay said...

Oh my goodness!! Those were the best figs I have ever eaten. Such a lovely story it makes me want to relive meeting little Antonio. You write beautifully


Kitchen Butterfly said...

Oh wow, I am comforted too by your words because He always shows us a sign, leaves a little reminder.....even when we don't ask! It just makes you feel very well looked after doesn't it????? And the figs looks gorgeous I must say!

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New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.