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Food IV, The Coast

Alongside Shrimp and Bluefish

Ocracoke Fig Cake

by Andrea Weigl

“I have had a longtime love affair with Ocracoke Island . . . My tryst with Ocracoke fig cake is almost as long.”

I have had a longtime love affair with Ocracoke Island—a sixteen-mile stretch of land on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I eloped there, returned for my honeymoon, and try to go back every year for a family vacation. My tryst with Ocracoke fig cake is almost as long. I encountered my first slice at Ocracoke Seafood Company in 2009 as a newlywed. Plastic-wrapped portions of the spice cake were sold for $3 a piece out of the refrigerated case alongside shrimp and bluefish. Ocracoke fig cake is one of the few recipes I know of with a definitive origin story. The consensus among the island’s nearly 1,000 full-time residents is that the late Margaret Garrish first made the cake in the 1960s when she substituted canned figs in a date cake recipe. She was the quintessential island cook, making do with the ingredients she had on hand. Fig trees are the only fruit trees that survive in the barrier island’s sandy soil. Once you tune into their presence, you see the craggy bushes with scattered oyster shells underneath in almost every backyard. Garrish’s cake spread across the island via PTA functions and church suppers. And today, it’s celebrated with a bake-off during the annual Ocracoke Fig Festival held in August.

Ocracoke fig cake is one of the few recipes I know of with a definitive origin story.

One of my favorite Ocracoke memories (besides my wedding) was the afternoon I spent talking to Chester Lynn, a ninth-generation Ocracoker and self-taught horticulturist. Lynn has identified fourteen different varieties of fig on the island. There are the more common Brown Turkey and Celeste, as well as some Lynn believes are particular to the island, including the Blanche Howard, Springer’s Point, and the Pound Fig—or “pine fig” as it sounds in Lynn’s brogue.

I dream of tasting those varieties. I dream of having an Ocracoke fig tree orchard. I did once buy a fig tree from Lynn and carefully transported it back to my home in Raleigh. While that tree didn’t survive a harsh winter in our front yard, I’m determined to try again. Who wouldn’t want a taste of Ocracoke right outside their door?

Ocracoke Fig Cake

Yield: 10–12 servings

This cake, from Ruth Toth, the former owner of Café Atlantic restaurant on Ocracoke, won first place at the 2015 Ocracoke Fig Festival.

3 eggs
1½ cups sugar
1 cup oil
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
½ cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups preserved figs, drained and chopped coarsely, or fig preserves
1 cup walnuts or pecans

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a tube, Bundt, or 9 x 13-inch baking pan; set aside.
  2. Whisk eggs in a medium bowl. Stir in sugar and oil until fully combined. Set aside.
  3. Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Stir egg mixture into flour mixture, alternating with buttermilk and vanilla. Fold in figs and nuts. Bake for about 1 hour in a tube or Bundt pan but check at 40 minutes; the cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (The cake will take less time in a 9 x 13-inch baking pan.)
  4. Let cool. If using a tube or Bundt pan, remove cake from pan, slice, and serve.

Fresh or Fried: A Southern Cultures Seafood Reader

Twelve fish(ish) tales from the archives (with accompaniments). Read the whole platter here.

This article fist appeared in the Coastal Food issue (vol. 24, no. 1: Spring 2018).

Andrea Weigl is a producer with Markay Media, which produces the PBS show “A Chef’s Life.” She is a former food editor, a cookbook author, and a beginner gardener. So far, there are two fig trees in her orchard.

Natalie Nelson is an Atlanta-based illustrator, picture book maker, and collage artist.

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