Citizens, I would challenge any of the superlative members of TFD Nation to deny that as a child, Fig Newtons were not among their favorite cookies. Soft, slightly chewy and caky at the same time and that delicious sweet filling was a great treat to the young scion who would go on to become the supernova of supremacy who alone is The Food Dictator!
Now, imagine that same taste experience, but as a grown-up treat of sublime sweetness and you have a true culinary Coelacanth – an unexpected holdover from another time that is the Ocracoke Island fig cake! Few things are closer to the heart of your beloved Leader than old recipes that are nearly lost – and this one certainly qualifies!
I first learned of the uniqueness of this island from an incredible BBC article – you can read it in its entirety here, but I will excerpt some of it now:
Native Americans, English sailors and pirates all came together on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina to create the only American dialect that is not identified as American.
I’d never been called a dingbatter until I went to Ocracoke for the first time. I’ve spent a good part of my life in North Carolina, but I’m still learning how to speak the ‘Hoi Toider’ brogue.
The people here just have their own way of speaking: it’s like someone took Elizabethan English, sprinkled in some Irish tones and 1700s Scottish accents, then mixed it all up with pirate slang. But the Hoi Toider dialect is more than a dialect. It’s also a culture, one that’s slowly fading away. With each generation, fewer people play meehonkey, cook the traditional foods or know what it is to be mommucked.
Located 34 miles from the North Carolina mainland, Ocracoke Island is fairly isolated. You can’t drive there as there are no bridges, and most people can’t fly either as there are no commercial flights. If you want to go there, it has to be by boat. In the early 1700s, that meant Ocracoke was a perfect spot for pirates to hide, as no soldiers were going to search 16 miles of remote beaches and forests for wanted men.
William Howard was one of those outlaws, serving as quartermaster on Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. Leaving before Blackbeard’s final battle in 1718, Howard made his way to Virginia, eventually taking the general pardon offered by King George I to all pirates.
But unlike some, Howard had a plan. For several decades, he dropped out of sight, only to reappear in 1759 when he bought Ocracoke Island for £105 from a man named Richard Sanderson, a justice and later a General Assembly member in mainland North Carolina.
Howard settled down along with some other ex-pirates and started building a community with boat pilots who had been stationed on the island to help guide merchant ships around sandbars in the area. A mainland North Carolina Native American tribe also interacted with the early settlers. The Woccon tribe had set up fishing and hunting outposts on the island, which they called Woccocock.
Through misspellings and mispronunciations, it became Wokokon, Oakacock and Okercock, before finally arriving at the current version of Ocracoke in the mid-1700s. So at this point, there were Native Americans, English sailors and pirates from a variety of places all in one location. And that isolated community of just under 200 started blending words and dialects, and eventually building its own way of speaking.
“It’s the only American dialect that is not identified as American,” said Dr Walt Wolfram, a North Carolina State University professor who studied the Ocracoke dialect for more than 20 years and currently works as the director of NC State’s Language and Life Project. “That’s fascinating to me. You can find pronunciation, grammar structures and vocabulary on Ocracoke that are not found anywhere else in North America.”
Howard’s community lived in near-isolation for almost two centuries. Electricity didn’t arrive at the island until 1938 and a ferry service didn’t start until 1957, leaving the islanders cut off except for the occasional supply trip to the mainland. Even today, things are a bit different for the island’s 948 residents than on mainland North Carolina.
In the past, kids adopted the dialect because that was the only version they heard. Now there are hundreds of dialects and languages that most will encounter before they graduate high school. In fact, as of 2019, on that island of 948 people, fewer than half actually speak with the full ‘Hoi Toider’ brogue.
“Within one to two generations, it’ll be gone,” said Dr Wolfram. “It’s dying out and we can’t stop that.”
Yet while the dialect may be in danger, the islanders are managing to hold onto their unique culture in other ways. In the beginning, settlers often had to come up with alternatives when they didn’t have the right ingredients for a recipe. That same concept holds true today: with limited stores on the island, if you run out of supplies, you can either head to the mainland for what you need or just find a replacement.
“Ocracoke is really good at adapting,” said Amy Howard. “I joke that we need to make a cookbook for Ocracoke that says what the recipe is and then what you can actually get, because almost inevitably, you get a quirky recipe and you won’t have everything you need.”
That’s actually how the fig cake, which is now Ocracoke’s signature dish, came to be. The story goes that in 1964, island resident Margaret Garrish was making a date cake and she had all the ingredients mixed in, except one.
“She found she didn’t have any [dates], so she did what we all do and looked in her cupboard and found a jar of fig preserves,” Amy said, explaining that figs are a holdover from the original settlers, and you can find fig trees in almost every yard. “She threw them in the cake, mixed them up and now we have fig cakes.”
Now every year in August, the island holds a Fig Festival, complete with a fig cake bake-off, fig tastings, a square dance and traditional games like meehonkey.
Fig cake is basically a fruit-based variant of the old English spice cakes that were very popular a few hundred years back, and even into the early 20th century – very apropos for an island still holding on tightly to its past! Teddy Roosevelt’s wife donated a handwritten recipe for spice cake that was a favorite of the President to a 1906 cookbook – here it is:
My recipe hews closely to the classic Ocracoke version, though I have reduced the amount of cinnamon (I’m not fond of that spice), added in a bit of ground cardamom and mace and I call for vanilla paste instead of vanilla extract. The fig preserves you use must be of the finest quality – I prefer those from the Dalmatian coast, you can buy them here.
This is a superlative recipe, Citizens and I hope you decide to visit Ocracoke Island someday before their unique dialect and way of life has passed beyond the veil into distant memory…
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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