A couple weeks ago, a friend and I made lamb meatballs with barberries, yoghurt, and herbs from Yottam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s popular Jerusalem: A Cookbook. I’m trying to spend my money more wisely, so I modified: substituted year-old, shriveled golden raisins for the cranberry-like barberries, a couple pinches of my roommate’s za’atar in place of the called-for mix of fresh thyme-mint-coriander-dill-tarragon, and more onions in place of shallots.
The figs, however, were non-negotiable; I had chosen the recipe because of them. I kept it in the back of my mind for weeks, but each time I went to the gleaming Mariano’s supermarket down the street, I found no figs. I decided I preferred the selection and prices at Cermak Produce, on the bus route home from work, but they too were lacking in figs. And then, when I had all but given up, a green plastic basket sitting by the cash register at the Middle Eastern Bakery & Grocery caught my eye. I left with a carton of baba ganoush and fresh figs.
A few days later, I glanced back at the recipe and saw, to my dismay, that it called for dried figs. I told my roommate about Carolyn and Gabe’s posts discussing those green and then ripe purple and then black wrinkled figs thudding to the ground in The Bell Jar. I didn’t feel like I had much to write about metaphorical figs in my life that I may or may not be letting rot as I while away my time in indecision, but what if I pushed the fig metaphor as far as it could go? Or what if I wrote my post about literal figs?
What happens to a metaphor extended?
Does it dry up
like a fig baked in the oven for hours to expedite the process?
I wasn’t actually going to write about figs, but I’ve been thinking about them within the broader picture of my varied grocery excursions, all fairly convenient as I start to learn my way around my new neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.
In my role as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I’m a volunteer working to alleviate poverty. My living stipend is calculated according to the Cook County poverty rate. It’s an interesting approach, but among other things, it means I qualify for SNAP and am encouraged to take advantage of that service. I felt uneasy about applying for food stamps in my own particular financial situation, but I did want to understand what that process looked like.
But the website for Illinois’ SNAP program was down a couple months ago when I tried looking into it, and I haven’t gone back because it wasn’t a pressing need. My plan had been to just cook a little more simply. But then I went and splurged on those long-sought figs.
My VISTA placement is in the neighborhood of North Lawndale, on the West Side of Chicago. Once the bustling factory headquarters of Sears, Roebuck and Co., today you see a lot of boarded up greystones and empty lots. Unlike Trump, Chicago Public Radio’s Linda Lutton had no qualms about putting this on the level of Katrina: “Imagine TV footage you’ve seen of Detroit or Baltimore, or the worst parts of New Orleans a few years after Hurricane Katrina. North Lawndale’s Katrina has been a decades-long storm of disinvestment, slow and thorough.” It’s an effective image for radio, but the staged awe in Lutton’s voice cheapens the metaphor and bugs me as I click through pictures of Puerto Rico post-hurricane.
North Lawndale is a food desert, and, in a turn of events devastating for the other VISTA at my organization, the Popeyes down the street from our office just got shut down for food safety violations. There are many corner stores, but they’re just as likely to be shuttered as in business. These sights on the main streets belie the quiet, persistent work of schools, religious organizations, community partners, and neighbors committed to North Lawndale. And yet it’s irrefutable that figs, literally and metaphorically, are in comparatively short supply.
There’s a new corner store in Lawndale—77th Market—painted a cheery yellow. But it sits on the corner of 19th and Kedzie Ave. It’s a film set for “The Chi,” an upcoming Showtime drama. The buzz around “The Chi” is justified. It’s created by Lena Waithe and produced by Common—a story of the South Side told by South Siders. I’m definitely going to watch it when it comes out.
But there’s something rotten about seeing the South Side getting representation on North Lawndale’s lesser known streets. Of course, TV shows rarely film where they’re set. But A DNAinfo headline lays bare the sore: “Fake ‘Corner Store’ Reminds North Lawndale of What it Doesn’t Have – Food.”
What does it mean when the West Side so easily and yet so disconcertingly becomes a film set for a story of the South Side? Why is Chicago Public Radio casting as far as New Orleans for an image when North Lawndale is right here? How distant is my own search for figs, when I have several supermarkets within walking distance of my apartment? What happens when I push all these thoughts onto a page and ask a question I can’t even begin to answer?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.