“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.
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?
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.