Connecting People to Places

Fig preservers: a longtime island tradition

Della Gaskill sells her fig preserves and fig rum butter at her Woccocon Gift shop on Lighthouse Road.

Della Gaskill sells her fig preserves and fig rum butter at her Woccocon Gift shop on Lighthouse Road.

By Connie Leinbach

Ocracoke fig cakes are made from fig preserves, and starting in July, several islanders get busy making preserves.

Della Gaskill, arguably the grand dame of figs on the island, sells hers exclusively from the little shop, Wococcon Gifts, behind her house on Lighthouse Road.

She also sells fig syrup and fig rum jam.

As soon as the sugar figs—small little figs that ripen first–start ripening, mid- to late July, she starts making her wares, along with other hand-made items in her shop.

“I never know how many I put up,” she says in her Ocracoke brogue when asked how many jars she makes. “I’ve been fixin’ figs since I was a teen.”

Della is a two-time winner in the traditional category of the Fig Cake Bake-Off and the author of “A Blessed Life, Growing up on Ocracoke Island,” a book of reminiscences about her life.

And she loves to share stories.
“I people and I love to talk to people,” she said, noting that she has met visitors from all over the world, many of whom she corresponds with.

Her late husband Owen had a vegetable stand outside their house in the summer and he would revel in talking to all the customers, Della said.  Now, she’s doing the same.

“I never thought I’d take up where he left off,” she says, smiling broadly.

She shares a fig recipe with a visitor:

Take a baked sweet potato; slice it. Put the slices in a pan and pour some of her fig syrup on them along with some nutmeg and cinnamon. Then bake again to heat through.

Donna Boor, owner of Thurston’s House B&B, makes fig preserves while her mother, Annie Lou, also makes award-winning fig cake, as she won the traditional honor in the first Bake-Off in 2012 during the July 4 festivities.

“I put up 10 and a half cases a year,” Boor said about her fig preserve enterprise. They are usually used for her mother’s cakes, which she makes for the B&B and for sale to the public.  “I like to pick figs and eat them right off the tree.”

Boor said she and others know where all the fig trees are around the island from which to harvest figs.

Last year, the harvest was not as good as usual because Hurricane Arthur on July 4 damaged them.

“Last year, the figs soured on the vine before the harvest,” she said.

And that, both she and islander Chester Lynn said, is tantamount to a crime.

“It’s a shame to let ‘em waste,” she said.

One of Boor’s tasty ways of preparing figs is with goat cheese; pour some fig preserves over the chees; warm it and serve on crackers.

Lynn, owner of Annabelle’s Florist on Back Road, was the grand marshal “Fig King” of the July 4 parade. He is looking forward to presiding over the Fig Festival this year.

He explained that the different colors of fig preserves can be from the different varieties of figs on the island (14 he said), or how long they are cooked.

“Years ago, they cooked them (preserves) all different,” Lynn said in his brogue. “They also put in clove, cinnamon, nutmeg or coconut.”

Nowadays, most islanders just use lemon, he said.

“Some fig trees on Ocracoke have been bred and done so long here that they’re not anywhere else,” he said.

Sandy soil is why they grow so well on the island.

In addition to Woccocon Gifts, fig preserves can be purchased at several locations throughout the island:

Albert Styron Store has preserves by Mabel Gaskins, Valerie Mason’s mother

Village Craftsmen has preserves made by Dale Mutro

The Variety Store sell preserves by Carol Richey.

Pony Island Restaurant sells preserves made by Bobby O’Neal

Janet Spencer’s and Gaynelle Tillett’s preserves can be purchased at Corkey’s Store along Creek Road. Gayanelle’s preserves are also sold at Ocracoke Seafood Co. which also sells her fig cake by the slice.

Ocracoke Preservation Society has preserves made by Debbie Wells.

Preserves also can be purchased at Ocracoke Restoration Co., Roxy’s Antiques and Zillie’s Island Pantry.

Woccocon Gifts on Lighthouse Road.

Woccocon Gifts on Lighthouse Road.