Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

24 Hours in La Mancha

May 9, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 13

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Figs are a different story all together, as you would expect, and certainly more familiar. They share the same order in their taxonomic rank as the quince, though come from different families. They both have roots, trunks, branches, leaves and fruit, but that’s where the similarities end.

          Figs have been around a long time. And I mean a real long time. They are thought to be the first domesticated plant in human history, cultivated for the first time possibly a thousand years before even wheat was tamed; it’s a place of honor the sector simply does not exploit enough, if you ask me.  Their fruit is recognizable to many Americans in the form of a pasty jam square wrapped in a soft but crumbly cookie known as a Fig Newton. The cakey snack has been around since the 1890s and is remarkable, even today, for its use of real fruit, a particular source of pride for its makers. It also apparently contains enough sugar to run a car, but let’s ignore that. Pot-smoking college students between bong hits will swear by it when they tell you the name of the product was thought up in honor of Sir Isaac Newton to highlight the greatness of the invention, but the theory has been thoroughly debunked as urban legendry. The name for the fig roll actually comes from the town Newton, Massachusetts, chosen for no other reason than that it sounded better than “Fig Cambridge”, where the factory was actually located.

          The original owners of the company have long since stepped aside and let the big names takeover. First came Nabisco, who bought it out, along with just about every other blessed biscuit from America; then Kraft came on the scene and gobbled up Nabisco. That’s the very same Kraft which spent much of the end of the 20th Century wooing the world’s largest tobacco companies, RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris. Together they combined to generate an arsenal of the most toxic habit-producing food and smoking brands civilization has ever known. Few enterprises in history have done so much to poison the human body, and made a killing in the process.

          Nabisco still uses its brand name, but the parent company is no longer known as such; it now goes by a humdrum moniker Snackworks. Kraft has also been rechristened as an even quirkier “Mondeléz International”, and earns on average around 26 billion dollars. It holds about $63 billion in total assets, placing it somewhere around 70th in the rankings of GNP by country. That means its economy is heartier than some 134 nations. It’s a colossal company, to say the least. And yes, Fig Newtons still adorn our supermarket shelves. Their continued popularity is backed by their consistently upbeat annual sales performance.

          While not considered a major world supplier of the fruit, Spain does a respectable job in fig production. It’s currently second in the European Union, after Greece, and ninth overall in the world, producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 tons a year, though crop yield will predictably rise and fall dramatically from season to season. Most of the produce comes from the region of Extremadura to the west, but Cebolla has proven itself an important enclave, which explains the presence of a fig tree on the town seal. Unlike the quince, fresh figs can be and are consumed. Its unprocessed flesh is milky and granular, refreshing on summer evenings, but it’s the dried version which captivates the market, catapulting it to international fame, as well as into our cookies.

          These and other tales of tomatoes, zucchini, basil and lettuce took up our visit to the garden. Then I looked above the top of the stout fig and back at the house; to my right I noticed up on the gables and in the window sills of the decaying palace next door an army of bird predators just waiting to get their beaks into the succulent piece of fruit. The sonic force field supported by the emissions produced by Radio Nacional de España managed to keep the marauders at bay…but only as far as the fringes of the property. I don’t know just how many birds had joined us that evening, but you’d think this was an audition for a Hitchcock film. They waited patiently.

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