My husband knew better than to keep the news from me about the annual Ocracoke Fig Festival.
We vacationed on the Outer Banks island last month; the first day of our stay happened to coincide with the fig celebration.
We have a history with this remote barrier island. We eloped there. We honeymooned there. We try to vacation there every year.
It was during our honeymoon in 2009 that I discovered the island’s love of figs and first tasted Ocracoke fig cake. Fig trees grow well there, and the island is dotted with 14 varieties, according to the island’s fig expert, Chester Lynn. All summer, locals put up preserves and whole figs in syrup, which are sold at local shops.
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The moist, spice cake was first made in the 1950s or 1960s by the late Margaret Garrish when her children say she didn’t have dates for a date cake recipe. Garrish’s version spread to other home cooks via church suppers and community potlucks. The cake is now served at a number of restaurants and sold by the slice at the fish house.
I have a couple of fig trees, make fig preserves every fall and therefore make fig cake all winter.
My husband knew that if we got off the ferry, stumbled upon the fig festival and I discovered that I had missed my chance to enter an Ocracoke fig cake contest that it would not be a good start to our vacation.
Once he told me, there was no way I was not going to compete.
In the pantry, I found one last jar of fig preserves, a key ingredient for the cake. I decided my preschool daughter and I would make the cake the night before our vacation. I was determined to hold the cake carrier in my lap, if necessary, during the three-hour drive to the ferry. (It wasn’t.)
We also had to change our itinerary. We would have to get on the road by 6:30 a.m. to catch an earlier ferry to get to the island in time to enter my cake.
After doing all of that, I lost.
That is how it should be. My cake couldn’t compare to those made by longtime Ocracokers who grew up picking figs, making preserves and baking cakes. I felt that even more as I talked to folks like Della Gaskill, 77, who ships cakes all over the country from her Woccocon Nursery and Gifts shop, and Robbie Lewis, 37, who learned from his grandmother, Peggy O’Neal, and sold preserves, cakes and cake kits at the festival.
But I did pick up some tips from this year’s winner: Ruth Toth, the longtime owner of the now-closed Cafe Atlantic restaurant. Starting in 1961, Toth spent her summers on Ocracoke where her grandparents lived. She was determined to move there after graduating college. That’s exactly what she did in 1978.
She spent decades making Ocracoke fig cake, which she served by the slice at her restaurant with coffee ice cream. Toth’s tips include stirring the batter by hand instead of using a mixer and increasing the amount of figs from the standard recipe.
Winning to me would be the chance to use those tips one day if I ever get to enter that contest again.
Ocracoke Fig Cake
From Ruth Toth, former owner of Cafe Atlantic restaurant on Ocracoke. Her cake won first place at the 2015 Ocracoke Fig Festival. Her recipe differs from the classic by increasing the amount of figs. At the restaurant, Toth served this cake with coffee ice cream. Toth published a cookbook, “Cafe Atlantic Cookbook,” which is sold at Books to be Red, Ocracoke Preservation Museum and The Village Craftsman, all in Ocracoke.
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup oil
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cup preserved figs, drained and chopped coarsely, or fig preserves
1 cup walnuts or pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a tube, Bundt or 9-by-13-inch baking pan; set aside.
Whisk eggs in a medium bowl. Stir in sugar and oil until fully combined. Set aside.
Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl 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 likely take less time in 9-by-13-inch baking pan.)
Let cool. If using a tube or Bundt pan, remove cake from pan, slice and serve.
Yield: 10-12 servings.