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Plum Crazy

by Julia Sneden

I read in the paper the other day that the prune industry has received permission from the government to market their product as "dried plums" instead of prunes. It seems that the word "prune" has acquired an unpleasant connotation as well as a supposedly unfortunate identification with the over-the-hill age group. I believe the thinking behind the change is that the term "dried plums" will hold more appeal for those tanned, fit, health-seeking youngsters who don't believe they'll ever grow old or need the benefits that prunes are reputed to bring.

Mind you, this is the same younger generation that thinks nothing of dropping all sorts of bathroom words in public and at great volume. I can't believe that scatological conversation of any kind could offend them. Are we to believe that they can't deal with the word "prune," or even big words like "laxative" or "constipation?" These are the same people who flock to movies that display every bodily function without a blush. When, please, did the younger generation develop such delicate sensibilities? Give me a break!

Which leaves me with the distinct impression that the prune people are really just trying separate prunes from their image as old folks' food. I have news for them: like the prunes they're trying to sell, we old folks may be wrinkled, but we're powerful. You can't afford to alienate us. Face it, prune people: you'd better hope that your name-changing campaign is a success, because if your strategy doesn't snag the younger market you may be left with NO market, having offended the over-the-hill crowd. We're likely to turn to the powdered high fiber products and snap our fingers at you, snarling "That for the insult!"

I must confess that I am offended for more personal reasons than most. I'm not much of a prune aficionado, although I do have a recipe for a really good oatmeal/prune bread that I found in Yankee magazine a few years back. I make it a couple of times a year, and the whole family (old, middle-aged, young adult, teenagers, and really young) loves it. That's the extent of the family's prune consumption these days. But I have in my heart a fondness for the wrinkled fruit, and a connection that goes back a long way to ancestors I never even knew.

One of my great grandfathers, Orrin Henry Barnhart, was in the lumber business in the then-sleepy little town of San Jose, California. In the early 1900's, he took it into his head to go into politics, and ran for mayor. He lost by some absurdly small margin (the family legend says 7 votes), whereat he retired in a huff to a prune ranch.

You might think that "orchard" or even "farm" would be a more appropriate term, but I assure you that "ranch" is what it was called. The property was situated on almost an entire section of land in the beautiful Santa Clara valley, where it lay between the old two-lane Highway 101 on the west, and the Coyote Hills on the east. Coyote Creek, a large stream that held water even during the long, rainless summers, flowed through the ranch. The place was almost self-sufficient, as the family raised animals for food and grew vegetables and flowers in a large garden. There were a few apricot and peach trees near the house, but the main crop, the money crop, was prunes, or rather prune plums, acres and acres of them spread out in long rows across the valley.

It sounds like an idyllic existence, out there in the sunshine where the hills grow vivid green each winter, and in the summer dry to a soft gold. My father, who grew up on the ranch, had a pony cart to drive to the one-room school a mile or two down the road. The main north/south tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad lay just to the west of Highway 101, and the ranch had a whistle-stop at Coyote (not a town; just a water tank). In those days, there were many hobos riding the rails, and one of them confided to my father that they had placed a secret sign on the ranch gate, because my great grandmother was known never to turn away a hungry 'bo.

Apparently my father spent a lot of time swinging on that gate when he was young, watching the world go by. One of his aunts made some good spending money from Reader's Digest for sending in the tale of his first encounter with that new-fangled invention, the automobile. A shiny red Reo had broken down right outside the gate, and the driver, who was trying to repair something, saw the little boy and said: "Son, do you have a monkey wrench?"

"No," came the reply. "We have a prune ranch!"

That part of the country is very different now. A few prune plum trees still grow in the area, but there is nothing like the miles and miles of white blossoms you could see in the spring, even when I was a girl. My father talked about seeing salmon swimming up Coyote Creek to spawn. Nowadays, the creek is sadly diminished, and even, in some places, hard to find. When California put a new, multi-lane Highway 101 down the eastern side of the Santa Clara valley, my father snorted: "They've just paved over the best swimming hole in California!"

Once their children had grown and left home, my great grandparents sold the ranch. All seven of their sons and daughters retained a great love for the old place, however, and loved to tell stories of the good old days whenever they got together. Devalued as it was by the Depression, Great Grandpa Barnhart's land was not the rich legacy he'd hoped to leave his children, at least not in monetary terms.

They did, however, come away from the old place appreciating the efficacy of prunes when it came to living a healthy life. My grandmother, the eldest Barnhart daughter, lived with us. Believe me, she knew just about every way that one could possibly prepare prunes for the table. Her breakfast every morning began with a bowl of stewed prunes. We had pork roasts stuffed with prunes. We ate prunes as a snack. We had cinnamon buns with prunes instead of raisins in them. We often had desserts of prune whip or prune duff. At Christmas, Grandma chopped dates and nuts and stuffed them into prunes. She then rolled them in powdered sugar, put them into old See's candy boxes, and gave a box to each family member. You'd unwrap the package, look at the box, and pray that this year it would be chocolates. It was always prunes. We were a regular family.

Fortunately, my mother, not my grandmother, was the chief cook and menu planner. The tiny orchard at our own house bore other fruits. Apricots, fresh or canned by my grandmothers, were a regular feature at meals. We had a couple of kinds of plums (Green Gage is the only one I remember) and a peach tree or two. We kept a crate of oranges by the back door, and there was even a pomegranate tree in the side yard. It was quite possible to get through several days at a time without having to eat prunes. Grandma was the only one who insisted on a daily ration.

In the years since, I haven't thought much about prunes. I'm certainly not about to sit down to a large bowl at breakfast time.

Perhaps it's foolish to be bothered by the prune industry's efforts to rename its humble fruit, but there's something homely and honest in the word prune.

It's just so...what it is! I harbor no ill will for those people marketing their dried plums, but I don't think I'll hurry to buy any. My heart belongs to Great Grandpa. After all, who would want to retire to a dried plum ranch?




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