Friday, August 21, 2009

Spirit House

This photo looks very like the spirit houses I used to see around Asia. There’s usually an image -- a portrait or statue of the spirit, whether it’s a god or someone no longer living, and some offerings, frequently oranges. Candles and incense are lit, all of which is done to keep the spirits from being pissed.

Eastern religion was not on my mind when I started this. I wanted to write about figs. If anything says life, it’s a fresh fig. It’s a lovely source of fiber, antioxidants, potassium and magnesium, and lovely, period. Even erotic. As D. H, Lawrence wrote:

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,

Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,

And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

Then you throw away the skin

Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,

After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.

But the vulgar way

Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.

Every fruit has its secret.

You can read the whole Lawrencian thing at

In any case, don’t be polite, be vulgar. Figs demand to be bitten. It is a crime against nature to do otherwise.

Figs are just starting to come into season, reason enough to live and be joyful. A fresh fig really needs no adornment, but what the hell kind of recipe would that be, so I scrambled for a fig idea despite being 1) short of time and 2) halfway nuts. So I thought, nuts. Nuts are nutritional powerhouses -- with protein, fiber, trace minerals, and my favorite, walnuts, are a good source of omega 3s, too.

Walnuts scared me as a child. Unlike almonds, which are smooth and uniform, they’re lumpy and resemble brains. Instead of peanuts’ frank, happy flavor, walnuts are earthy and rich but with a hint of puckery tannin, thanks their paper-thin brown skin. It is their odd shape and counterpoint of flavors I now love about them. Go figure.

Spirit houses are little altars for those who no longer have their bodies. We, fortunately, have homes for our souls -- our bodies. We rarely appreciate our bodies, but we ought to, they're very clever. We should pay attention to our wonderful bodies and treat them right. This recipe helps. It’s the sort of food to make you glad you’ve got a nice corporeal self, to make you glad you’re alive. It is not, however, gorgeous. All the ingredients save the orange are brown, put them together and you have a taupe spread. Do not let this discourage you. You get the juxtaposition of the fruit -- soft and smoothe and sweet -- with the nuts -- solid and crunchy and bracing. This is warming and fragrant and sensual, a spread to appease the most cranky of spirits.

Why are the figs and nuts, the cornerstones of this recipe, not in the photograph? Because they’re in the pate, silly.

Fig Pate

1 cup dried figs

3/4 cup walnuts

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cardamon

1 orange

2 tablespoons red wine

Place figs, walnuts, cinnamon and cardamon in a food processor or blender. Cut orange in half. Pop out any visible seeds. Toss half the orange in with the figs, nuts and spices. Squeeze in the juice from the remaining orange half. Add the wine.

Process for a minute or two, until mixture forms a thick paste.

Awfully nice on whole grain toast with a glass of sherry or a fortifying cup of tea. Spoonfeed to someone of whom you are fond.

Keeps tightly covered in the refrigerator for 2 weeks.

Makes 1-1/2 cups, serving 4 to 6.


  1. Ellen, the pate sounds other worldly. Once the grandparents sold off most of their property, including the apricot and almond trees, we still had a fig and a meyer lemon. I miss those sun-warm figs. Terry (I'm not really anonymous, but I'm so unsavvy that I have no idea what the other options are.)

  2. You are not anonymous at all, and very dear besides. Was thinking of you when I created this. I foresee fig pate in your future.

  3. BTW, rind and all? Terry