The nonnas arrive in a backyard. Each drags a piece of rolled-up linoleum — a leftover from that on her kitchen floor. They are here to take part in an annual event, the covering of a fig tree to protect it from fall and winter weather. Up and down the block, retirees, nonnas, children, and ladies gather to save the tree and its marvelous fruit for another year.
The men have already wrapped the tree in wads of newspaper before covering it with the linoleum. Now the women begin to skirt the tree to help tie a length of clothesline and secure the newsprint to the tree. The trouble starts. The group leader, owner of the fig tree, says to a nonna, “I’ll take the rope from you; I can reach the top of the tree.” He is telling her gently that her height is a disadvantage.
A nonna never takes “No” from anyone, least of all a man. “Don’t tell me how to do this,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for years!” The leader is resigned. He manages to get out, “Yes, but. . . .” before she walks away.
“Good, she’s gone,” a guy — trying to get the job finished — mutters. Not so fast.
She returns with a kitchen chair, and places it at the base of the tree. Clutching the trunk, she manages to climb on the chair. She turns around to smile triumphantly at the naysayer as she tugs on the line that someone holds on the other end. Satisfied, she knots her end of the rope.
But the chair starts to totter beneath her. She hesitates. It isn’t like her to call for help, certainly not from any of the men there. Fingering her rosary beads in the pocket of her front apron, pressing her shoulder against the half-wrapped tree, she starts gesturing to a nonna standing nearby. She calls to the nonna, “Psst, psst, psst. . . .” She can’t bring herself to say, “Help me.” The other nonna looks up and shrugs her shoulders. She can’t interpret “Psst, psst” as a cry for help.
Finally, the nonna on the shaky chair gestures to the man she was putting in his place minutes ago. He smiles and shakes his head. “Here goes,” he says. He extends a hand to her and holds onto the chair with his other hand.
The nonna, red-faced, steps off the chair, points to the line she has looped around the top of the tree and says, “I did it.”
Again, all he has time to say is “Yes, but . . .” and she’s off to share news of her victory with the other nonnas. They know she’s been unsuccessful in proving her climbing prowess. But one pats her on the shoulder, they all nod in agreement, and they return to their talk about– what else? — food.
It’s talk about the figs the tree bore when it was in bloom. The hapless nonna wins back the attention of the group as she tells of a recipe bursting with the lush fruit. To ensure her giving them every detail of the recipe, they resort to complimenting her on her chair-bound ballet, her defiance of the group leader, and , of course, her cooking.
“First, you slice a dozen figs in half — longways. . . .”
- Dough for 1 pizza crust, store-bought or homemade
- 1 cup whole milk ricotta, well drained
- 1/2 pound whole-milk mozzarella, thinly sliced
- 1/4 pound speck, diced
- 12 figs, halved lengthwise
- 3 garlic cloves, quartered
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 basil leaves, torn
- 3 tablespoons Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
- 1 tablespoon honey
- Sprinkle coarse salt
- Sprinkle red pepper flakes
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
- In the olive oil, saute garlic until golden; set aside oil and garlic.
- Spread pizza dough in lightly oiled pan.
- Smooth ricotta over dough; top with mozzarella.
- Arrange figs in a pinwheel pattern atop mozzarella; sprinkle with speck.
- Scatter garlic over ingredients; set oil aside.
- Sprinkle pizza with basil, Parmigiano, salt, and pepper.
- Drizzle with garlic oil and honey.
- Bake 18 to 25 minutes, or until crust is golden and cheese is bubbling.