Ocracoke is fig country and midsummer is prime fig season.
Nearly every older house on the island has at least one fig tree in the yard. Some local figs grow to nearly the size of a pear. Each year, the community puts on a fig festival.
But for the first time, the annual Ocracoke Fig Festival will be held virtually this year — from Aug. 1-8.
“If you come to Ocracoke, you’re going to want fresh local seafood and figs,” said Sundae Horn, coordinator of the annual festival, which is sponsored by the Ocracoke Preservation Society.
About 15 varieties of figs are found on the island, each thriving in the sandy soil despite the salty air and clashes with hurricanes. Some of the varieties have lineages that go back two centuries.
In late July and early August, locals make fig preserves, fig cakes, fig barbecue sauce, sauteed figs and fig lattes. Inspired by figs, they create paintings, drawings, cartoons and carvings.
It can stir up a small scandal if anybody lets their figs ripen and fall to the ground without making something from them.
“People just love the figs” said Tommy Hutcherson, owner of the Ocracoke Variety Store, which carries many fig products. “I take all I can get because I can sell them.”
He sells 200 to 300 cases of fig preserves annually, each with 12 Mason jars, he said.
While Hurricane Dorian’s flooding took out some trees and the coronavirus has prevented the typical in-person festival, crowds are again on the island and clamoring for fig products, Hutcherson said.
The most famous recipe here is a fig cake first made by homemaker Margaret Garrish more than 50 years ago. She did not have the dates called for in her recipe, so she substituted figs. They were plentiful.
The cake became famous on the island and beyond. It is big, rich and moist.
“That cake is wonderful,” said local historian and fig expert Chester Lynn. “They eat it up all over the Outer Banks.”
Lynn has given dozens of interviews with magazine and newspaper writers about Ocracoke figs. He has even written a book.
Lynn, a direct descendant of a member of Blackbeard’s crew, said figs and the trees were an intricate part of his life growing up. His family and neighbors ate figs straight from the tree and consumed dishes made from them.
Fig trees are typically not tall, but wide. They have broad leaves that make great shade on a hot summer day and offer cover for animals as well as children playing hide and seek.
Lynn played as a child on an old fig tree with limbs so fat they fastened a porch swing from one of them.
“We would jump up and down on it to shake out the figs,” said Lynn, now 63.
Lynn grew up not far from Springers Point, where Blackbeard holed up before meeting his death just offshore. People once lived there, but it is now a preserve along the Pamlico Sound. Fig tree roots more than 100 years old grow there.
“They keep spinning up new trunks,” he said.
Organizers of this years virtual festival will post photos and recipes on the Ocracoke Fig Festival Facebook page. A festival YouTube channel will feature videos of how to make preserves, fig cake and other dishes. Lynn and others will speak about fig history and legacy.
The fig cake bake-off will also be held online. Entrants can submit the recipe with photos and recorded testimonials from friends and family who have eaten it, Horn said.
“Fig are a very big part of the culture here, especially among older folks,” she said.
Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, firstname.lastname@example.org
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