Ark of Taste
Hog Island Fig
Ficus carica v. Hog Island
Following the election of 1892, President-elect Grover Cleveland embarked on a Thanksgiving hunting trip to Hog Island, Virginia, one of a chain of barrier islands located eight miles to the east of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Inclement weather limited President Cleveland's hunting opportunities, but not those for dining: "In the evening he sat down to his Thanksgiving dinner. Messrs. Ferrell, Jefferson and Davis dined with him. The repast has never been excelled on Broadwater [Hog] Island… At dessert some preserved figs, raised on the island and the club's special pride, were served." The figs Cleveland enjoyed were a commonplace in Hog Island gardens and pantries. Following hurricanes in 1933 and 1936, the residents began an exodus from the island, removing not only themselves and their personal possessions but also their houses and favorite cultivars. Figs were transplanted to the mainland where they remain cultivated in local gardens.
The Hog Island fig remains a culinary link to the Hog Island community, including Broadwater. Not only are there narrative accounts of the fig that date to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, at least one period photograph documents the fig in situ. In this photograph the fig towers over an outbuilding at the back of the Phillips's family garden on the island. Seaside residents value the fig for both its culinary qualities and its link to a shared heritage centered on long abandoned settlements.
The Hog Island fig is notable for the rich complexity of its flavor profile. Fully ripe, it presents itself with an intense floral favor that yields to an earthy sweetness. The size, shape, and pronounced flavor of the fig lends it to widespread use in preserves used as a spread on bread as well as a condiment and dessert.
Two fig varieties appear to be associated with Hog Island on the eastern shore of Virginia and both have strong associations with the local cuisine.
A copse of approximately six plants that stand behind the ruins of the Hog Island Life Saving Station represent the fist of the two. The plants stand roughly seven feet in height with approximately three-inch diameter trunks rising to leafy crowns six to seven feet across. The fruit (in fact, flower) of the fig is no more than three inches in length (stem to base) and two inches in diameter at its widest point with a squat, flat-bottomed tear-shaped profile. The caramel color skin covers white flesh around a bright red heart.
The second Hog island fig remains a local favorite widely used for fig preserves within the households of Hog Island descendents and their neighbors living in and around the seaside villages of Oyster, Willis Wharf, Quinby, Red Bank, and Wachapreague. These figs are distinctive for their deeply lobed leaves that resemble the human hand. They grow best near saltwater environments and at least one example has been documented with its roots trailing in tidal salt marsh. The typical growing habit is that of a bush that reaches heights of well over ten feet. The fruit is tear shaped reaching an average length of two to three inches and one-and-a-half to two inches in diameter at its widest point. The caramel colored skin includes nearly yellow highlights at the stem end, a pale flesh, and magenta to deep red interior.
Figs are not indigenous to the eastern United States, but were introduced into the region no later than 1700. Because figs are grown from cuttings, they are in effect clones. Thus, the descendants of the original Hog Island figs are genetically true to type.
The original stand of figs on Hog Island is an untended naturalized grove. It is subject to the period hurricanes that overwash the barrier island, and the island itself is vulnerable to rising water levels wrought by climate change. While cuttings have been brought off the island and dot the yards of private dwellings of perhaps a dozen former residents of Hog island, the numbers of trees all told is quite limited. Efforts are now being made to propagate the variety in a local nursery so that its extraordinary taste and qualities do not vanish from the food ways of the very distinct eastern shore culinary culture.
The Hog Island fig requires little to no maintenance other than pruning. These plants require no insecticides, herbicides, or irrigation. Mulching with wrack or oyster shells improves yields, but the fig requires remarkably little effort in its cultivation.
The Hog Island fig is currently used solely for home consumption. It is eaten fresh from the bush in August and early September and put up in preserves for the winter months.