In some circles, figs have gotten a bad reputation, perhaps due to their association with the sticky, boring cookies our grandmothers would keep stashed in the back of the pantry. The chokehold that Fig Newtons had on crunchy moms and senior citizens for decades cast a long shadow over American culinary history that may never be truly forgotten. But that bad reputation is wholly undeserved: Fresh figs are luxurious pockets of velvety, crunchy jelly, less messy than plums but equally as juicy. For those who love foods with interesting textures, taking a bite out of a fig is an unparalleled joy.
They’re gorgeous, too, and it makes sense when you consider that figs are technically not fruits but are actually inverted clusters of flowers. Because of this difficult arrangement, reproduction is a challenge for a fig tree — a challenge that requires a horror show of symbiosis to reach its natural conclusion. There’s a reason that many vegans refuse to eat the seemingly innocuous bloom.
Most flowers rely on wind or bees for pollination, but the fig does not have that luxury with its coy, inverted flowers. Rather, it requires the assistance of a self-sacrificing, pollen-laced female wasp ready to lay her eggs in a warm, welcoming nest safe from the elements. This wasp is in need of a home for her offspring, so she makes her way into the internal bloom of the male fig. It’s a tight fit — so tight that she loses her antennae and wings as she squeezes into the fruit. Once she gives birth, she will die inside the fig. Her wingless male offspring will mate with their sisters and then chew holes in the fig with their sharp teeth, allowing their female counterparts to depart their natal home and start the disturbing process afresh. The brothers have no wings, so they will succumb to their juicy grave just like their mother before them. Figs have long functioned as a symbol of fertility and prosperity across cultures, but that symbol all but completely ignores the downright brutal reality of the reproductive process of the fruit.
It’s important to note that this process only takes place in male figs, which provide an ideal egg-laying environment specifically catered to the needs of the female wasp. This symbiotic relationship is so advanced that every species of fig has its very own species of wasp, each designed to complement each other’s needs. Considering there are over 700 species of figs, this is an incredibly intricate system. Luckily, it may seem, we only eat female figs, so you may assume that we’re at least not consuming wasp remains every time we pop a fig in our mouths. But it’s not that simple.
Though only male figs can provide an adequate home to a mother wasp in need, that doesn’t stop wasps from finding their way into a female fig accidentally from time to time. When this happens, the mother wasp has nowhere to lay her eggs. But without her wings, which were snapped off in her process of entering the fruit, she’s trapped and will die even without laying her eggs. There she will stay until enzymes in the bloom called ficin slowly digest her as the fruit grows and ripens. Occasionally, the ficin will fail to break down the entire exoskeleton, which could leave small, mostly unremarkable morsels of wasp behind for the pleasure of the animal who eats the fruit.
But just because you feel that gritty crunchiness between your teeth when you bite into a fig doesn’t mean you’re getting a mouthful of wasp exoskeleton; this texture just comes from the seeds of the fig. However, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the fig you’re eating may have at one time digested a wasp before you ever thought of digesting the fruit, especially if the fig in question was wild. If you’ve suddenly been turned off by the thought of ever eating a fig again, you may be happy to learn that many commercial figs are pollinated without the help of wasps. Anyone buying their figs at their local grocery store is unlikely to encounter a wasp-pollinated fig, let alone find one that actually contains visible pieces of undigested wasp.
Perhaps, as some have surmised, the apple got unfair treatment in the Bible, and Eve actually ate from a fig tree. The fig, with its pleasant appearance and taste but downright gory process of reproduction, definitely checks the boxes of both good and evil. Maybe it’s time to retool the symbolism of the fig to reflect our knowledge of the incestuous bloodbath that’s essential to the continuation of the species. Or maybe now you can just feel validated in your lifelong hatred of Fig Newtons.