It started with the fig tree, which had grown enormously, beside her condo in Carrboro.
“Picking figs is interesting because they hide behind the leaves,” Georgann Eubanks says. “I learned that figs are the most fragile fruit. They don’t ship well. You can dry them, but if you want to eat ’em fresh you have to eat them right when you pick ’em, when they’re just at the right moment.”
The seasons keep the tempo in Eubanks’ recently published The Month of Their Ripening: North Carolina Heritage Foods through the Year, a collection of literary nonfiction essays about 12 North Carolina foods deeply intertwined with the state’s cultural histories.
“Figs, with all their quirks and metaphors, are a symbol to me about how things used to be in the food world: that we would wait, happy to receive something that only came back once a year and look forward to it,” she says. “The thrust of the book is it’s more fun if you have to wait, it’s more interesting to not have everything at your fingertips all the time. There are traditions, celebrations, folkways in North Carolina that were very dependent upon the seasons that I want to lift up again.”
See Eubanks interviewed during a live taping of DG Martin’s public television show ‘Bookwatch’ on Sept. 8 at 11:45 a.m. in Mountcastle Forum in the Milton Rhodes Arts Center.
The prolific writer and Emmy-winning documentarian spoke with farmers, cooks, historians, scientists, and the lay people carrying on Old North State food traditions today, including an 80-year-old man who still checks 400 soft-shelled crab pots every morning during the season and an 84-year-old woman growing scuppernong grapes along their namesake river.
“She was just so down-to-earth and smart,” Eubanks says. “She said to me that people always want the biggest scuppernongs. She said, ‘Honey a quart is a quart, and the little ones are the sweetest.’ There are a lot of wise people still providing these delicious foods for us.”
As much as Eubanks’ goal is to preserve cultural knowledge and folk wisdom, it’s also to shed light on the state of food systems and to help protect the state’s biodiversity.
“I learned there are certain food that are in danger because we’re overharvesting or, in the case of oysters, our storm-water runoff along the coast from our development makes it hard for oysters to thrive,” Eubanks says. “Ramps were an obscure garlicky green that the Cherokee people favored, and they have been harvested by the roots and are in danger because chefs in fine restaurants decided they’re a cool thing to serve.”
The Month of Their Ripening is not doom-and-gloom nonfiction, though. Gorgeous botanical paintings by Carol Misner keep company with Eubanks’ story vignettes from mountain ranges to shorelines, and the first chapter kicks off the journey with some whimsy. January’s food is snow.
“People get really passionate about whether you’re supposed to add to the snow sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk or heavy cream,” she says. “And then there’s people who add brandy. That’s the other piece of this: There’s a scholar at the University of Wisconsin that talks about edible memory. We all have memories of particular foods we were raised eating or had on special occasions. The farther east you go in North Carolina, the more special the occasion of snow and everybody has their idea about how you’re supposed to make ice cream out of it. It’s trivial, but it’s important to people.”