Monday, February 4, 2013


<<This is second in a continuing series exploring the histories and crafts of favorite food items mentioned in THE BLOND LEADING THE BLOND…>>

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Sam asked as we exited the dimness of Flossie’s Pharmacy.  I squinted against the sunlight of a glorious summer’s morn.  The three Fig Newtons I’d stuffed in my mouth prevented me from answering, but I figured it was a rhetorical question, anyway.  I was right.
~Excerpted from The Blond Leading the Blond 

          Raise your hand if you thought the Fig Newton was named after that Apple-to-the-Head guy.  You know, Sir Isaac Newton, the brilliant man who first proposed the laws of gravity. Yeah, me too.  But in my research for this food-related topic I learned something quite different. 

          The Fig Newton was originally called just The Newton, named after a town in Massachusetts.  That was back in 1891.  But the cookie wasn't new then; it was already hundreds of years old by that time.  So let’s start our history lesson a few hundred years earlier.

          The history of figs can be traced back as far as 15th century Egypt when figs first began being cultivated.  Somebody (and nobody knows for sure who, because that was a rather long time ago and records did not survive the ensuing 500+ years…) figured out a way to bake the figs into a light pastry in order to keep them fresher longer.

          Good ideas travel fast (well, maybe over a couple hundred years) and the fig-filled-biscuit idea made its way to Sicily, where they were called Cucidati. These special treats were prepared two times a year; Christmas and St. Joseph’s day. 
          Eventually this good idea made its way to America, where they wer considered “medicinal.”  While today a doctor might say “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning,” back in the 19th century you would have been more likely to be advised to “stick to a diet of biscuits (defined as crisp, dry bread) and fruit” to cure what ails you. Hence a combination of dried figs and biscuits was just what the doctor ordered! 

          An Ohioan by the name of Charles M. Roser, owner of a bakery in Kenton, Ohio, is credited by some sources of baking and promoting the fig biscuit.  Research shows that he may have sold the recipe to the Kennedy Biscuit Company for $1,000,000.  (In today’s dollars that would equal 19 million!) 

          Now enter James Henry Mitchell.  He invented a machine that was a funnel inside a funnel that squeezed out the fig jam encased in cookie dough.  It came out in one loooongg tube and then was sliced into the cookie size you are familiar with today and then baked.  (Ha!  I bet you thought Pillsbury had the lock on the slice-and-bake idea).   This enabled the Kennedy Biscuit Company to mass-produce the medicinal cookie. 

          The Kennedy Biscuit Company, the holder of the recipe, was based in Boston, Massachusetts, had a history of naming their cookies after surrounding towns.  So, the fig biscuit was renamed the Newton
          The year of the Fig Newtons birth is officially recorded as 1891.  Fast forward to 1898 when the Kennedy Biscuit Company merged with New York Biscuit Company to become the NAtional BIScuit COmpany (hence the name NABISCO) and Ta-Da,  Nabisco Fig Newton became a household world. 

          It’s interesting to note that the recipe, shape, size or baking process hasn’t changed in over 120 years.

          Not a big fan of the figgy cookie?  Well fear not, there are other uses for them.  A google search for Fig Newton Craft Projects pointed me to these:            

          And of course, who amongst us of a certain age will ever forget the commercials staring The Big Fig Newton, who ended the ad with a pose.  "Eewy-gooey rich and chewy inside.  Golden flakey, tender cakey outside..."  Click on the link to join me on a trip down memory lane.

(And good luck getting that song out of your head today!)

          I hate that I missed it, but National Fig Newton Day is celebrated annually on the 16th of January.  Traditionally celebrations suggest you bake your own Fig Newtons from scratch, but I gotta say, the recipes I found make it look messy unless you’ve got access to a double-funnel machine.  I do not.  So I will have to celebrate by eating the store-bought kind.  Heck, I might even really cut loose and have some apple, strawberry or raspberry Newtons

          But if you missed National Fig Newton Day this year, fear not, Fig Newtons can be enjoyed any day of the year. And they may make you feel better, if only as a fond memory of your youth.    

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