Growing up in south Louisiana, figs and fig trees were no more uncommon than the Fig Newton cookies Mamma brought home from the market. Hard to count the times I sat up in the branches of a fig tree pulling the fruit off limbs and stuffing it in my mouth. But when it comes to cookies, like most Americans I grew up with Oreos, chocolate chip cookies and Fig Newtons. In our house it was either that or Ginger Snaps, which more often than not went into the grocery bag because they were the dog’s favorite cookie. Growing out of childhood I leaned toward Fig Newtons as a favorite, something that has remained a lifelong preference.
The fig tree originated in Asia Minor around the region of northern Turkey, and was an important food source in ancient cultures. Its mention 239 times in the Bible gives some indication of its place in near eastern cultures of old. But it was the Egyptians who first made a kind of pastry filled with a paste of figs. The Greeks believed the fig was a gift from the goddess Demeter, and a fruit made sacred to the god Dionysus. The term ‘sycophant,’ meaning a servile, self-seeking flatterer, translates in Greek to “one who shows the fig,” and dates back to the early Greek fig trade where sukophantês referred to a person who informed on fig smugglers. Our word for the fruit comes to us from the Latin ficus. Brought by the Spanish in 1520, figs were introduced to America through the island of Hispaniola, modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
A cookie maker from Ohio, Charles M. Roser is credited with creating the Fig Newton recipe and selling it to the Kennedy Biscuit Works, which would later become Nabisco. Roser’s fig-filled cookie was helped greatly by the invention in 1891 of a machine that made mass production possible. Invented by James Henry Mitchell, the machine worked like a funnel within a funnel; the inside funnel supplied fig jam, while the outside funnel pumped out the dough. The result was a long length of stuffed cookie that was then cut into smaller pieces.
Kennedy Biscuit Works had a tradition of naming cookies and crackers after the surrounding towns near Boston, and originally the new cookie was called simply the Newton, after the Massachusetts town of that name near the bakery. After the fig-filling got glowing reports from customers Kennedy Biscuit changed the name to Fig Newton.
Supermarkets everywhere now carry Fig Newtons, and some stores offer a variety of brand choices. Somehow though, the cookies don’t impress me as being as moist and rich in flavor as those we ate in childhood. Very probably the ingredients have been altered over the years. No question that artificial fig essence and aroma have entered into the recipe. Some insist that Walmart fig bars (Great Value) have the most moisture and purest fig flavor of all the current brands.
Today, Fig Newtons are number three in popularity worldwide, ranking just below number one-ranked Oreos and number two, chocolate chip cookies. Americans alone eat over one billion Fig Newtons each year.