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Fresh Figs, and Bugs?

Our neighbor went on vacation this month with a heavy heart, knowing she'd miss eating most of the figs just starting to weigh down the branches of her backyard tree. So she asked us to do her a "favor" and eat as many as we could before the birds got to them. Being the kind-hearted souls that we a...

Fresh figs, courtesy of Flickr user Xerones


Our neighbor went on vacation this month with a heavy heart, knowing she'd miss eating most of the figs just starting to weigh down the branches of her backyard tree. So she asked us to do her a "favor" and eat as many as we could before the birds got to them. Being the kind-hearted souls that we are, we obliged.

I'd never even eaten a fresh fig before, let alone cooked with one, so I needed some suggestions. Between tips from friends on Facebook and Twitter, browsing other blogs and perusing good old cookbooks, I learned a lot.

"Jam them with gorgonzola," one friend advised. "Figs are great sliced open and stuffed with walnuts," said another. Lisa suggested a sandwich involving goat cheese, arugula and sliced figs, and another friend sent a link to a recipe for grilled figs with honey and ginger. All of these things sound amazing; what to try first?

Then one friend's response curbed my appetite considerably.

"I don't eat figs. I know too much about what's inside," she said. "That's all I'm going to say."

Which, of course, sent me into a tizzy of Googling and guessing. I remembered a rumor I heard as a kid about there being ground-up bugs in Fig Newton filling—was that it? Yep, I was on the right track. My friend and many others believe there are insects inside figs.

And they're right, as it turns out. Fig trees only bear fruit thanks to something called a fig wasp. The wasps are born inside the figs, and when the females hatch, they crawl out to find a new fig in which they can lay their own eggs. During this journey, they pick up pollen from the fig's male flowers and carry this into their new fig-nest, pollinating the seeds inside.

But it's a one-way trip; the females die after laying their eggs. And the males who hatch inside the fig are stuck there too—after mating with the young females and chivalrously chewing exit holes for them, they're too tuckered out too leave (and they don't have wings, anyway).

So yes, there are definitely dead bugs in figs. But the fig essentially digests the dead wasps as it ripens—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, fig to fig, you get the idea—so don't worry, that crunchy texture in the center of a fig really IS just its seeds.

Besides, there are bugs in much of our food, especially anything dyed red. Might as well get used to it.

Now, who's got some more fig recipes to suggest?
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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