Why Bury Fig Trees? A Curious Tradition Preserves A Taste Of Italy : The Salt For generations, Italian-American fig growers in the Northeast have buried their trees in trenches for the winter. It's a tradition that preserves both flavor and ancestral ties to southern Italy.

Why Bury Fig Trees? A Curious Tradition Preserves A Taste Of Italy

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In parts of the Northeast, Italian immigrants work hard each year to preserve a taste of home. To protect their fig trees from the cold winter, they bury them, a tradition many older Italians are looking to pass on to the next generation. Hal B. Klein begins this story in a garden just outside of Pittsburgh.

HAL B. KLEIN, BYLINE: It's a gray, chilly December morning in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.


KLEIN: Michele Vaccaro and his assistant are digging a trench.

MICHELE VACCARO: Looks like we're burying somebody over here, a body.

KLEIN: He's burying a 12-foot fig tree.

VACCARO: It's been done for years, probably the 1800s when they start to bring the fig trees over here. That's what they did. They were put them always in the ground.

KLEIN: These Mediterranean trees aren't especially suited to grow in the cold climate of the Northeast. Freezing temperatures and whipping winds can kill a fig tree. Mary Menniti should know. She's a third generation Italian-American and a preservationist of Italian-American culture. We're in her yard, and this is her fig tree. There were other methods of preserving the tree, but...

MARY MENNITI: Only the ones in the ground were the ones that survived consistently.

KLEIN: So after the trees' leaves drop but before the ground freezes, Italian-American fig growers in the Northeast pull their trees into a two-feet deep trench until spring. Today, Vaccaro is teaching Menniti how to bury the tree he gave her three years ago. Once the trench is dug...

VACCARO: See, Mary, an old wire, electrical wire. I saved it, and look at what we do now.

KLEIN: Branches snap and pop as he uses the wire to tie the tree into something that looks like a rocket ship. Then, with the tree still in place, he starts to bend it toward the grave. Thousands of capillary-like roots are broken as he pulls the tree parallel. By the time it's in the ground, it's hanging on by just a few of its strongest roots. It's a lot of work for a few baskets of figs, even if those figs have an earthy, herbaceous flavor impossible to find at a grocery store. What's important to this group of immigrants is that these fruits connect them to their southern Italian roots.

VACCARO: We cannot forget Italy. It's always in our blood. We left from there, but we still care in our hearts all the time. And that's something that keeps us in touch with our Italian heritage.

KLEIN: For Menniti, who also cares for a fig tree first grown by her late grandfather...

MENNITI: It's like having an heirloom.

KLEIN: This heirloom is treated a bit more roughly than Victorian China. But fig trees are remarkably resilient. Vaccaro covers the grave with plywood and then, in the Italian tradition of wasting nothing, covers the plywood with the remains of last summer's garden. Those tomatoes, beans and pepper plants will help insulate the trees and then in the spring, decompose to compost to feed them.

VACCARO: It's a lot of work. When you eat those figs, it's worth it.

KLEIN: In the spring, Vaccaro, Menniti and other Italian-Americans in Northeast will unearth and upright their trees. They pop back as easily as they bend down. By summer, these fig lovers will once again reach into their trees' branches, twist off the fruits and taste a sweet bite of home. For NPR News, I'm Hal B. Klein in Pittsburgh.

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