Food & Drink: April 2024

By Abby & Kevin Tankersley

Get Figgy with It

When Richard Sneed bites into a Fig Newton, he’s not just having a snack. He’s recalling his childhood, a 4-year-old living with his mother and grandparents in LaGrange while his dad serves in Vietnam in a house that had a fig tree in the front yard. He wasn’t tall enough to reach the branches, so he had to wait until the ripe fruit would give way and fall to the ground before he could eat them.

A year later, the family was reunited and living in military housing in Bangkok. His mother would buy tins of Fig Newtons at the commissary, and she would use them to bribe 5-year-old Richard to do his chores.

Sneed is now a full-fledged grown-up adult person, and his love for Fig Newtons has never waned. He has seven packages of Fig Newtons on a shelf behind his office desk at Baylor University, where he teaches a myriad of courses in the philosophy department.

“There are exactly 20 Newtons in one of those packages, and they used to come in these long sleeves, two to a package that each had 15 in them. I counted,” he said. “The packaging used to be a pound. Now it’s 10 ounces. It’s half the value at more than twice the price.”

Sneed has been teaching at Baylor for eight years. Previously, he taught at Auburn, University of Alabama Huntsville, Ohio State and various community colleges. He’s taught at Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio, and was a Methodist pastor for a few years. (Fig Newtons are, he said, “God’s perfect food.”)

“Part of the problem was that my wife and I are both PhDs, and we have never been able to find teaching jobs at the same school,” he said. “We finally managed to find teaching jobs in the same town.”

Bonnie Sneed is the director of choirs at McLennan Community College.

Richard Sneed taught philosophy at MCC before joining the Baylor faculty and was recognized for his service to higher education with the National Institute of Staff and Organizational Development Excellence Awards in 2017.

Sneed and his love of Fig Newtons came to my attention after a class exercise with my students in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media at Baylor. When I talk about interviewing, I tell my students to, whenever possible, interview a source in her or his home or office, so you can maybe learn a little about that person by what you see in his or her environment. Then I give my students a chance to look around the office I’ve had for the past 18 years and then ask me questions about stuff they see. And the question always comes up about the package of Fig Newtons on a bookshelf.

After that question this semester, Hunter Dobbs, a senior from Elizabeth, Colorado, told me that he had a philosophy professor who said that he could be bribed with Fig Newtons. That professor was, of course, Richard Sneed.

“‘Bribed’ might not be quite accurate,” Sneed said, “But what happens is, when I grade your papers, I like to do a line of figgies, because that puts me in a good mood, and you want me in a good mood when I’m grading your paper. And that’s all it is,” he said.

Students will sometimes send long emails asking for an extension on a paper, and Sneed would rather have a well-done paper turned in a couple of days late than something thrown together on deadline. And those pleading emails sometimes end with, “I’ll give you some Fig Newtons.”

“I’ve never asked for any of those. But the word is out,” he said. “And it’s not going to actually affect your grade.”

Some students have brought Sneed packages of Strawberry Newtons, which, while he appreciates the effort, are not Fig Newtons. He’s not interested in any of Nabisco’s other flavors of Newtons either, such as apple, blueberry or mixed berry. However, when asked what addition of Newton he might like to see, he was quick with an answer: dewberry.

Dewberries grew wild down by the railroad tracks in LaGrange, and he and his cousins would go there on their bikes and pick enough for their grandmother to make a cobbler. His grandfather would grab a spoon and say he was going to try “just a corner” of the still-warm cobbler, and then try a bit more, and maybe just one more bite, until half the cobbler was gone.

“That’s a little slice of home right there,” he said, “so if I can make another flavor, it would be dewberry.”

In our cabinet at home, we happened to have a few jars of dewberry jam made from wild fruit that Abby and her aunt, Liz Zemanek, picked a while back. Abby made some fig filling for our version of Fig Newtons, and then made another batch that added a bit of that jam.

And when we emptied that jar of dewberry jam, we made a cocktail of the leftover remnants in the jar.

The Recipes

Fig Newtons

For the cookie dough:

  • 2 1/4 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 5 ounces unsalted butter, softened but cool
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar, gently packed
  • 1/2 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2 large egg yolks, cold

For the filling:

  • 12 ounces plump, sticky dried Mission figs, stems trimmed
  • 1/3 cup sweetened or unsweetened applesauce
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice

Optional flavor:

  • Add 1 tablespoon dewberry, blackberry or other flavor jam to the fig filling

To make the dough, combine the butter, brown sugar, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, honey and orange zest in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low speed to moisten, then increase to medium and cream until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add orange juice, then add the egg yolks one at a time and continue beating until smooth. Reduce the speed to low and sprinkle in the flour, mixing until well combined.

Knead the dough against the sides of the bowl to form a smooth ball. Flatten into a disc and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until cool and firm but not hard, about 1 hour. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 1 week; soften for 30 minutes at room temperature.)

To make the filling, cut the figs in half. Pulse with applesauce and orange juice in a food processor until roughly chopped, then process to a thick, smooth paste. Scrape the bowl and blade with a spatula, then process a minute more to ensure no chunks remain. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip and set aside until needed, up to 24 hours. (The preserves can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks; bring to room temperature before using.)

To make the cookies, place a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350. Knead the cool dough on a bare work surface until pliable and smooth, then dust with flour and roll into an 8-inch square. Sprinkle both sides with flour and roll into a 15-inch square. Slide an offset spatula under the dough to loosen it, brush off excess flour, and cut into four 3 1/4-inch strips.

Line a baking sheet with parchment. Holding the piping bag at a 90-degree angle just above the surface of the dough — this will force the filling to flatten as it leaves the bag — pipe a 1-inch-wide strip down the center of each portion. Fold a long flap of dough over each strip, brush away excess flour, and roll each bar over, seam side down. Gently flatten each bar with your fingertips, then transfer to the baking sheet.

Bake until the bars are puffed and firm, without any significant browning, about 18 minutes, rotating the pan midway through baking. Immediately cut into 1-inch pieces, then transfer to an airtight container, with a paper towel between each layer and on top. This will steam the cookies and retain moisture for them to reabsorb, creating a soft, cakey texture. Cover and let sit for at least 6 hours before serving. Prior to that, the cookies will taste dry. Store for up to 1 week at room temperature or up to a month in the fridge. Makes about 32 cookies.

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Jam Cocktail

  • About 2 tablespoons jam, your choice of flavor
  • 2 ounces gin
  • Juice from 1/2 a lime
  • 3-4 mint leaves
  • Club soda

Place the jam, gin, lime juice and mint leaves in a cocktail shaker about one-quarter full of ice. (Or you could add the gin, lime juice, mint and ice to an almost-empty jar of jam. Shake really well to incorporate all the jam.)

Shake vigorously until mixed. Strain into a glass filled with crushed ice and top with club soda. Makes 1 drink.

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