North Beach Festival, & the Secret Life of Figs

by CJ Verburg

NBfest1-2015I live in a festival-prone neighborhood. Every few weeks, you walk out the door and there they are: the festive white tents, metal railings, and rows of porta-potties that mean Party Time.

North Beach is San Francisco’s Italian district, and along with Chinatown its densest residential area. The neighborhood’s cafes, architecture, parks, and people make it a sweet place to live, and also a hot tourist destination. From its hillsides (Telegraph, Russian, and Nob) you can feast on landmarks: the Transamerica Pyramid, Lombard Street, Coit Tower, Fishermen’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge. In its restaurants you can feast on Italian food, or your choice of Greek, Thai, Indian, Japanese, Mexican, French, Istrian, or traditional American.

ChNYr2015Survival is as precarious in North Beach for a restaurant or boutique as for a resident. Rents are astronomical and rising; turnover is high. If you’re not outstanding, you’re out. Festivals draw crowds of recreation-seekers, many of whom are happy to pick up a few souvenirs and then kick back in one of the local eateries or drinkeries.

With chain stores banned from North Beach, every shop or restaurant is distinctive. Every festival, however, is the same. February’s annual Chinese New Year celebration was bordered with dragon-twined street lamps and hung with lanterns, but almost identical in contents and shape to today’s annual North Beach Festival.  Columbus and Grant avenues are blocked off to car traffic from Broadway to Union Street, filled down the middle with food tents, boutique tents, and entertainment tents. Since North Beach is also the Home of the Beats, I passed one tent featuring a soi-disant poet declaiming amplified cliches about sex, and one sign in an art gallery advertising a service I didn’t see offered for Chinese New Year. NBfestAmputations


While fog and wind continue to blast the streets, indoors the crops are thriving on graywater and afternoon sun.6-9tomato1This was harvest week for the first two bedroom tomatoes (Marmande, from Flat Earth Farm). The Brown Turkish fig tree (Sloat Garden Center) in the living room, whose foliage has flourished since a winter pruning, finally shifted some of that magical botanical energy into fruit.

Figs thrill me. As somebody who grew up thinking of figs as the seedy tasteless paste inside fig newtons, I was staggered to learn that a fig plucked off a tree is as surprising and wonderful as a kumquat. (My fifteen-year-old Chinatown kumquat tree, banished to the outdoors, remains sadly barren.) Even the way a fig tree makes figs is miraculous. They start as a tiny bump at a leaf node. Over weeks, each one will grow to the size of a small chicken’s egg, until it ripens and softens into a green-brown package of pink deliciousness.