Turkey Figs

I was researching the major tea importers and purveyors in Salem in light of the upcoming anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, but another commodity kept popping up in the sources: turkey figs. I didn’t look at any customs records, but newspaper adverts both before and after the Revolution provide evidence of large imports of Turkey figs in Salem, and presumably a corresponding demand. I’m wondering if this is a by-product of what we now know was a very vibrant trade in fish and wine between Salem and the Iberian peninsula? It’s clear that figs were used for both medicinal and culinary purposes, although some purveyors favored one utility over the other. The very entrepreneurial apothecary Philip Godfrid Kast, for example, who had prosperous businesses in Boston, Salem, and Haverhill, clearly marketed them as a medicine in the 1770s and 1780s (though it also looks like he is providing Salem cooks with many of the ingredients for a Christmas “figgy pudding”).  This was nothing new to me—I’ve spent the last year reading early modern medical manuals for the book I’m working on and figs are always listed as one of the few “useful” fruits by Elizabethan authors—and the prescription of figs for various cough syrups and digestive tonics continued into the twentieth century. I presume New Englanders were eating lots of figs too but I can’t find any recipes in the early American cookbooks, and apparently Thomas Jefferson brought back a cutting of this particular variety, now called Brown Turkey Figs, only when he returned from Paris in 1789.

FIg Kast Collage

Turkey FIgs philip-godfrid-kast-trade-card (1)

Fig Collage 1804 1829Philip Godfrid Kast’s advertisements for Turkey figs in the 1770s and his 1774 trade card, American Antiquarian Society; Figs for sale in Salem, 1804-1829.

Not only do I not know what is happening to all those cases of figs being sold in Salem in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; figs are also difficult to identify as a culinary commodity in English cooking before the twentieth century. The classic “figgy pudding” seldom has any figs in it as the word was just a synonym for “plum”, denoting any dried fruit. Figgy pudding originated as a steamed savory potage and evolved into its sweeter, more Dickensian ideal over the early modern era and into the nineteenth century. Of course the Victorians invented Christmas as we know it, and the recipe for figgy pudding of Queen Victoria’s own chef, Charles Francatelli, contains no figs at all. In America, fig cultivation seems to have become centered on the South and California (particularly the valley surrounding Fresno) and so growers marketed a variety of fig recipes, encompassing everything from ices to jams to whips to “pickles”, and the use of figs in syrups for coughs and constipation continued into the twentieth century.

Fig PicMonkey Collage

Figs WellcomeJ.C. Forkner Fig Garden recipes, 1919 & California Fig Syrup Co. advertisement, Wellcome Library.

6 responses to “Turkey Figs

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    That is so interesting about how popular “Turkey figs” were centuries ago in Salem and environs. They probably had a longer shelf life than other perishable fruits throughout the year.

    As a child I recall my mother bringing home “fig squares” from Klem’s Bakery in West Lynn. They were delicious! A favorite treat was also “Fig Newtons” – not sure if they still make them.

  • Michael Downes

    Yes, interesting. I hadn’t realised the importance of the spice trade in Salem . I taught at a school in the UK run by the centuries-old Grocers’ Company – you may know that at one time they were known as the Guild of Pepperers; a camel is on their coat of arms. Christopher Conant, Roger’s brother, was a Grocer.

  • Lou Sirianni

    Figs are a particular favorite of mine but i had no idea the every early trade.
    Thank you …Donna

    Perhaps this trade was in dried figs which have a very long shelf life.

  • salemhandkerchiefgarden

    That’s a new one for me, Turkey Figs! Great research as always, Donna.John Wright

  • fbradking

    Not only did I just finish making my annual batch of black mission fig jam, but today are the final two performances of our “A Christmas Carol” in Marblehead (at the Lee Mansion), during which we do indeed sing about figgy pudding. This was a lovely bit of extra inspiration!

  • dccarletonjr

    Thanks for another great post, Donna, and for the hat-tip to the Iberian trade!

    According to this piece from Smithsonian magazine online https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/the-figs-and-mountains-of-izmir-124396266/ “Izmir is to the fig what Bordeaux is to wine” and we know that Salem vessels incorporated Smyrna into their post-Revolutionary trading circuits. (Smyrna also being an important source of that scourge opium.)

    Prior to the Revolution, however, my guess is that these fruits were probably reexported to the colonies via London, although the more I research colonial MA trade to Southern Europe, the more surprised at how far into the Mediterranean New Englanders penetrated, so who knows maybe some figs were brought back directly to the North Shore during the colonial era!

    I’ve yet to find any in the primary source shipping records I’ve consulted, however.

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