Dark Fruit: A Cultural and Personal History of the Plum
By Anca L. SzilágyiOctober 6, 2016
IN THE BEGINNING, there was găluşti cu prune — plum dumplings. My mother’s mother, in August, plum season, steaming up the kitchen, boiling them in a big pot. These were the days before summer camp, before air conditioning. An electrical storm was coming. She warned me not to turn on the television or switch on the light. I thought that if I even touched the window, there would be a blue electric shock. The dumplings that survived the boiling she fried in sugar and breadcrumbs. The disintegrated balls — white lumps of potato dough and misshapen chunks of plums — she set aside for me. The whole ones — perfect, round, sparkling — were for my parents.
A plum dumpling is a perfect universe: the first encounter with granular, sugary crumbs; the dense, substantial wrapping that you sink your teeth into; and the juicy, sweet, and sometimes tart Italian prune plum center that veers toward sublime.
One of the earliest stories to imprint on my mind was Leo Tolstoy’s 1875 fable for children, “The Plum Stone” (“Kostochka”). Vanya, seeing plums for the first time and finding their scent delicious, waits until he is alone and snatches one to eat before dinner. When his father asks who ate the plum, all the children, including Vanya, plead innocence. Vanya’s father says, “The fact that one of you has taken a plum is bad enough, but the worst thing is that there are stones in plums, and if you don’t know how to eat a plum and end up swallowing the stone, you’ll die before evening. That’s what I fear most.” Vanya blushes, then pales, and says, “I didn’t swallow it! I threw it out the window!” Everyone laughs as Vanya cries.
Five years after the fall of communism, my family visited Romania, the old country, for the first time since my parents left in the 1970s. We drove counterclockwise around the place, in a two-car caravan, starting and ending in Bucharest. On one of our last days, my father’s mother insisted we drive through the Carpathians in the pitch-black night, as she was eager to meet a friend the next day. I gripped the edge of my seat, watched the high beams of our cars skim the edges of steep cliffs, and then buried my head in my mother’s lap, hoping it would all be over soon. The next morning, safely away from the hairpin turns of the mountains and among rolling hills — farmland, orchard country — my grandmother asked my father to stop the car. There were no landmarks to indicate a meeting place. But as we stretched our legs, my grandmother waved at a figure in the distance, and a man’s flat cap emerged first from behind a hill. His tan arms clutched something to his chest and he rushed toward her with a sloshing Pepsi bottle full of clear liquid: tsuica. Homemade plum brandy. Moonshine. Into her suitcase it went, carefully transported back to the States so that it might properly “disinfect” us before each dinner.
Varieties of plum brandy in Eastern Europe abound: from the aforementioned tsuica, taken before every meal, to the Damson-derived Slivovitz of Serbia, to Hungary and Transylvania's Pálinka, and to Albania’s raki, made at home from small red plums. In Lëpushë, Albania, a family of five is said to consume 250 liters of raki per year, and it is considered shameful to not be able to offer guests a drink. Slivovitz, most easily found in the United States, is strong but smooth, still retaining some sweetness from the plums. As for the moonshine in my grandmother’s Pepsi bottle? Prepare for a throat searing.
Romania is the fourth largest producer of plums in the world (after China, Serbia, and the United States), and 75 percent of Romanian plums become tsuica. Palinka and Hornica, tsuica twice or thrice distilled, are strong and flavorless but will result in a plume of warmth from stomach to skull.
Among the peasants of Maramureș, a bottle of Hornica is a traditional wedding present and an essential drink at weddings. To celebrate a wedding, there is a “gathering of the god children” where each couple offers their godparents a sack of flour, grain, corn, and plum brandy, and each godchild purchases two shot glasses of brandy for his or her spouse. At funerals, two shots are swilled — one for the living self and one for the soul of the deceased — but inebriation is frowned upon and considered shameful.
Slivovitz, free of grain, is a traditional drink at Passover. Fermented with ground-up bits of plum stones, it sports a nuttier flavor than tsuica, my ur-brandy. Slivovitz made a weekly appearance at my grandmother’s Sunday dinners. (She served Slivovitz in lieu of the illicit, unexportable tsuica, except, of course, when she returned from Romania with a certain Pepsi bottle.) My husband and I moved to Seattle in 2009; craving a taste of home, we asked at the neighborhood liquor store for Slivovitz and learned they no longer carried it. They used to, around Passover, but even then the demand was low. “Try the suburbs,” the clerk said. That’s where the Jews live now. We’d never felt so Jewish as we did living in Seattle. In New York and in Chicago (where my husband grew up), Jewishness was a given. In Seattle, I started to feel anthropological, as if I had to explain my culture every time it came up in conversation. For the first time, my Jewishness felt like an oddity.
Now obscure liquors are the rage. At Nue, a restaurant offering “international street food,” you can get a Dirty Diplomat cocktail, which includes Unicum, a plum-infused Hungarian aperitif in a vein of Jaeger. (I delighted at the opportunity to eat mititei, skinless grilled sausage, but found their interpretation too delicate, a bit precious — I prefer my mititei in a backwoods beer garden with a side of food poisoning.) Whenever we find Slivovitz at the liquor store, we buy a bottle and stick it in the freezer next to the vodka. We offer it at our annual Seder for Passover orphans, though some cringe at the spirit’s strength and opt for the familiar and/or kitschy Manischewitz, or better yet, a local Pinot Noir.
The brief interwar democracy in Romania saw peasants voting, according to Hugh Seton-Watson, for “benefits promised them, for personalities they knew, or for cash or tsuica.” Sandwiching this time of favors was violence, chaotic on one end, systemic on the other.
The city of Czernowitz, once a provincial capital in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and subsequently absorbed into Romania, the USSR, and, currently, the Ukraine, is the setting of Gregor von Rezzori's memoir The Snows of Yesteryear. He depicts a fleeting image from the collapse of that empire in 1919. Drunken marauders raided abandoned army storehouses for decadent foodstuffs:
The revolutionary spirit of 1917 had degenerated into bloody madness […] Gangs of plunderers drifting about had already targeted the ration warehouses of the departed Austrian army as their first objective. Besmirched with lard and plum jam, totally inebriated and with their bellies full, the howling gangs of rabble staggered past our house; they were more or less held in check during the day but became menacing at night. (Trans. H. F. Broch de Rotherman.)
Even in that frightening scene of “bloody madness,” the phrase “besmirched with lard and plum jam” is alluring in its decadence, as if the lard and plum jam (and, quite possibly, plum brandy) partially inspired the rabble-rousing.
“[Y]ou’ll swallow your death,” warns the father in Herta Müller’s novel The Land of Green Plums (trans. Michael Hofmann). A former SS officer in communist Romania, he “keeps the graveyards deep in his throat […] His mouth drinks schnapps made from the darkest plums, and his songs for the Führer are heavy and drunken.” He warns the narrator not to eat unripe, green plums, but because she “wishes death” on her father, she “eats and thinks, This will kill me.”
As a university student, she watches police swipe green plums from trees, pocketing them, gobbling them. The police are depicted as childishly greedy, shortsighted, “lust[ing] after the sour taste of the poverty which had so recently ruled their lives,” feeding into and off of a poisonous system that requires their complicity. One friend of the narrator turns out to be a spy for the secret police; she suffers from a tumor at her breast, described as a “nut,” an image that recalls the deadly plum stones that are constantly swallowed yet never satisfy.
The compulsion to eat plums is sickening, the plums themselves toxic.
A peach is like your mother: It’s always there for you. A nectarine is like your girlfriend: It’s something really dear and special. A plum is like a harlot down the street: It’ll screw you every time.
— Joke circulated among California stone fruit growers about the difficulties in growing plums.
The average American consumer perceives plums to be “‘a little more adult, a little more gourmet’ than peaches or nectarines,” according to Chip Brantley, author of The Perfect Fruit. He discusses the pursuit of the ideal fruit through the development of pluots — a crossbred fruit that is mostly plum with some apricot thrown in. Interspecies plums also include plumcots, plucots, plumots, plutos, and plouts — but never, ever apricum.
Unlike apples, which grow with a more or less reliable standard of quality and flavor, plums are wildly variable risks: too much work and too often disappointing. The “black and red plum ghettos” of the modern American supermarkets resulted from years of failed experiments that narrowed the universe of the plum to a binary. Yet the black and red plums still disappoint.
U. P. Hedrick’s 1910 monograph The Plums of New York, published by the New York Agricultural Experiment Station, laments numerous problems encountered by plum trees in the majority of the temperate United States: parasites like curculio (a weevil), black-knot, leaf-blight, and plum-pockets, the latter a disease causing fruit to become “misshapen” and “bladder like.”
In the 1889 Report by West Virginia University Agricultural Experiment Station, Dr. W. W. Brown writes: “I selected a goodly number of Japanese plums with two objects in view. First, to ascertain whether they could be grown in this [region], and secondly, whether they are curculii proof.” Rather than Brantley’s “black and red plum ghettos,” these agricultural reports catalog myriad varieties. Brown writes of Kelsey Agon, Boton, and Katonkin plums, distinct in growth, appearance, time of ripening, size, and color. He compares the Katonkin to the Wild Goose plum, but more delicious. He proclaims the Boton and Kelsey superior to native plums. He remarks upon the same difficulties faced by the California growers in Brantley’s book: unpredictable blooming, the ever-present danger of losing the crop.
The pursuit of the pluot arose from the desire for a superior fruit, one not prone to disappointment. Plums, too often, are not what you want them to be. Brantley notes that the discovery of powerful antioxidants in red-fleshed plums became a boon for beleaguered American plum growers. Marketers want to boast the plum’s edge on pomegranate’s antioxidant levels, jack up the price, and watch profits bubble up.
Indeed, the nutritional benefits of plums are many: high fiber, potassium, beta-carotene, and boron — which helps bone development, muscle coordination, and testosterone levels.
Want to work on your manliness? Eat a plum!
Warding off parasites or ulcers? Try one smoked.
Hedging against misfortune? Pickled plums are the way to go.
Keeping evil at bay? Plant a plum tree in the northeastern corner of your garden.
The antioxidants message was lost on the American public. Taste and appearance are more hotly pursued than health. The Plums of New York catalogs 1,500 varieties of Old World plums in that state, including a blue-skinned, green-fleshed Tragedy plum. Origin stories of the plum suggest that the Domestica, our most common plum species, spread to East Asia and Europe from the Caucasus Mountains and Caspian Sea via Mongols, Tartars, Turks, and Huns. Imagine riding your trusty horse with a pocketful of plums or a sapling at your bag. Imagine the thrill of eating a new kind of fruit, the unexpected color and texture of its flesh, the unexpected flavor of its juice.
There is scarcely a region of the [United States] that has not its own wild plum; and each species shows a tendency to improve under cultivation.
The Wild Goose plum, Prunus hortulana, is thought to originate in Kentucky and grows wild from Maryland to Texas. Also known as the creek plum and the hog plum, it grows on a tall, straight-limbed, thornless tree, with thin, flat oblong leaves (which can produce dyes ranging from green to dark gray) and thick-skinned juicy fruit.
John Voss and Virginia S. Eifert on Wild Goose Plums:
By August there are oval, coral-red, or yellow-red plums on the trees. Few are perfect; most have small white larvae inside, larvae which were deposited as eggs in the ovaries of the flowers long ago in April. The plums fall, are pecked by robins. The stony seeds are gathered by chipmunks and wood mice and squirrels who find the nut inside a toothsome morsel on a [winter’s] day.
Far, far away from Herta Müller and Tolstoy’s death nut.
Sloes, or blackthorns, or Prunus spinosa, boast a black skin with purple-blue waxy bloom. They are thin-fleshed and astringent, and sport a thorny bark and spiny branches. Across Northern Europe and Britain, the prickly shrub hedged cattle. The juice of sloes dyes linen reddish and washes out to pale blue.
Sloe sap, according to Shlomo Yitzhaki, medieval Talmudist and Tanakh commentator, was used to make ink for manuscripts. (He used the term prunellier.)
Stones of sloes have been found in ancient Swiss lake dwellings.
And in 1991, a 5,300-year-old mummy was found in the Ötztal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border with sloes in his stomach. The mummy affectionately known as Ötzi died suddenly, either bashed in the head or killed by an arrow, and his undigested meal of sloes also included unleavened bread, deer meat, and moss, believed to be used as a food wrapper. He’d also taken a medicinal herb, hop hornbeam, suggesting he suffered from nausea or stomach ache.
Ötzi was not the only eater of sloes. Devourers of spinosa foliage include the emperor moth, the willow beauty, the White-pinion, the common emerald, the November moth, the mottled pug, the green pug, the brimstone moth, the hawthorn moth, and more.
Soaking sloes in gin results in sloe gin.
There’s “[t]he little beach plum of the Atlantic coast, the sloes of the Alleghanies [sic] and the South, the leathery-leaved Pacific plum, and the sand plum of the semi-arid plains.”
In East Asian art, “the plum is considered one of the ‘Three Friends of Winter’ with pine and bamboo, as well as a member of the noble ‘Four Gentlemen’ with the orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo.” Plums at their most refined.
Sex and Death
The plum in Chinese poetry goes way back. The oldest plum poems, from the 11th to third centuries BCE, pre–Han Dynasty, refer to the fruit more than the tree or flowers. One early poem obsesses over falling plums. The speaker urges men to pick them up before they’re gone. Hans Fränkel, a German-American sinologist, child of Jewish refugees, husband to poet and calligrapher Chang Ch’ung-ho, and author of “The Plum Tree in Chinese Poetry,” posits that perhaps the plums are girls reaching maturity, or girls impatient for marriage.
No one wants a rotten plum.
Han Dynasty poems shift from fruit to wood. A strange gift of a plum branch to the King of Wei enchants Fränkel. Does it convey magic powers, he wonders? (I want to say yes. I want a magic staff of plum wood.)
Later, in the Six Dynasties period, we shift from wood to flowers, the plum blossom a gift sent to a distant friend or lover. Poems become more delicate still. They dwell on the reclusive gentleman scholar, hiding among his willows and chrysanthemums, contemplating plum blossoms in late winter.
The prince poet Hsiao Kang (503–551), later an emperor, writes a poem in which an ideal plum tree in a palace garden transforms into a woman, “fairy-lady white.” Two hundred years later, in another poem, an emperor’s concubine becomes the Plum Witch. Fruit to wood to blossom to the ethereal: bewitching spirits.
Twelfth century CE poets speak of chewing on fragrant blossoms, as if they are fruit.
The poet Su Shih writes in 1095 CE: “Nothing is left but falling blossoms sticking to the empty wine cup.”
Fairy Tale–Red Fruit
The best place in the United States to grow plums is the Mediterranean West Coast. California, the center of plum production in the United States, also hosts a bevy of experimentation in crossbreeding, that pursuit of the novel and the ideal. At Chez Panisse, one might order a nearly blue-fleshed Flavor King pluot, served simply in a copper bowl at the end of a $65 prix fixe meal. Brantley conjures the opulently named “Midnight Jewel” black-skinned pluot, a variety he is told he absolutely must try but which he cannot find. I imagine the “Midnight Jewel” stored in some illicit thieves’ cave.
Brantley describes red-fleshed “Blood Plum[s] of Satsuma,” “fairy tale–red” fruit so good-looking you devour them, Vanya-like.
I can hardly remember such a dark-fleshed fruit, but I can imagine it. It's the idea that beguiles.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s composite “Four Seasons in One Head” (c. 1590) shows an old knobby soul, craggy with bark, woody warts, twiggy wisps, with branches reaching out of his head like antlers. Youthful cherries dangle from his ears and apples balance in the branches. Luminous green-gold grapes hang, juicy as the bark is dry. Beneath the apples, behind the cherries, two dark plums lurk, like a half-remembered dream nestled in the back of the mind. Thanks to modern super-sized fruit, I initially thought the prominent pink-hued orbs were plums, not apples. The plums, to me, are like a lesser-told story that is no less magical — perhaps more so in its rediscovery, because of its rediscovery. Not pomegranates, not apples, but plums as temptation.
I read Brantley’s descriptions of endlessly tested plum varietals and imagined taking a bite from the fruit on Arcimboldo’s composite head, the robust fruit I wrongly took for a plum. It would be neither delicate nor “fierce, spicy,” like one particular Israeli plum, but would have a hardier skin and a cakelike texture. I suppose if I were a breeder I’d try to cross the plum with a Saturn peach.
I hate to think of all the raw plums failing to meet my luscious ideal — tart plums, hard plums, mealy plums. Better to think of them in their more decadent old world iterations — dumplings, jam, brandy — the sort of products that elicit both rabble-rousing and decorous ritual.
The title recipe in Sylvia Boorman’s 1962 wild-foods cookbook Wild Plums in Brandy offers “a truly divine way of preparing a divine little plum”:
2 lbs plums
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup water
1 cup brandy
Wash the plums. Dip a needle into boiling water and prick each plum around where the stem joins it. Boil the sugar and water until you have clear syrup. Drop in the plums, boil for two minutes, and remove to china or Pyrex or stone dish. Cover tightly and let sit for 24–48 hours. The skins may come off; Boorman recommends leaving them in with the plums. Pour off the syrup into a saucepan and boil for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and put plums into sterilized jars and fill to the top with brandy and syrup and cover immediately. Boorman writes, “It is well to let them sit for three months […] And you will feel […] celestial after taking a dish of them.” Boiling wild plums in sugar and soaking them in brandy is perhaps a simpler method of ensuring flavor than the gamble of breeding fruit. And yet that method requires a certain kind of violence.
The World Seems More Real
M. F. K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf expounds upon how to live well during famine in wartime. (A high-end restaurant in Seattle is named after that book; I have no idea why.) Fisher writes of a prune roast so pungent and hearty, the world feels more real. Is my search for a perfect plum the search for something more real?
I long misremembered the magic fruit in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew (1955), his novel explaining the origins of Narnia. In my plum zeal, I reread that book and found that the magic fruit is not a plum but an apple in a garden. (Of course.) Why had I thought of plums? Because the witch who steals and eats the fruit promising immortality is stained with dark red juice.
I found solace in the chapter titled “The Wood Between the Worlds,” about a liminal place full of trees and pools of water. Jump into a pool and find yourself on earth, or in Narnia, or in a dying world of tyrannical giants. Lewis writes:
You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive. When he tried to describe it afterwards, Digory always said, “It was a rich place: as rich as plum cake.”
Grafting 250 varieties of heirloom stone fruit, most of which come from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, artist Sam van Aken is developing trees that grow 40 types of fruit. (Does he know van Aken is the family name of Hieronymus Bosch, that fantastical grafter? Are they related?)
Van Aken hopes to conserve varieties which commercial growers avoid due to durability, size, taste, and appearance, the avoidance that results in Brantley’s “red and black plum ghettos.” In his project he discovered, for example, the unpopularity of yellow plums, and I have to wonder why yellow is so much less appealing than purple-black or dusky blue. Do yellow plums seem somehow anemic?
In Western religion, van Aken notes, the number 40 represents “a number beyond counting”: the ethereal concept for his art project. Depicting the tree in blossom certainly suggests abundance.
Petals so lush you want to bury your face in them.
Botticelli’s painting The Virgin and Child (1480, a.k.a. The Madonna of the Book) shows baby Jesus in Mary’s lap. Behind her, at the window: A blue expanse of sky dwarfing a row of twilit trees. Just behind his cherubic head: An abundance of cherries and luminous yellow plums. The cherries suggest blood, the plums the love between mother and son.
In our last days on that family trip to Romania in 1994, we stayed on the orchard of another friend of my grandmother’s. The walled orchard had been taken over by the Iron Guard in World War II, and then the Communist Party after that, and had only recently been repatriated. In the dark basement, old furniture and files remained in disarray.
I can see, in my mind’s eye, morning glories on the verandah and dusty green leaves on peach and plum trees. I can see, by a dried-out creek off of their property, not too far from a hard water plant, abundant blackberries, warm and heavy on the vine. It was August, plum season, but I can’t for the life of me remember seeing fruit on any of those trees.
My grandmother’s friend, whose wife owned the orchard, had been a television newscaster during the Communist regime. (My grandmother had met him when she translated Soviet articles for the Romanian press.) Driving through the woods, he took us to a monastery for a candlelit choral performance, then to a backwoods beer garden for Ursu and mititei. He was drunk on tsuica, his driving a wobbling nightmare.
Long after that night, I can’t help but wonder about the desire to numb oneself, and where it might come from. Had there been some guilt? He’d done well for himself, a cog in the propaganda machine like so many others. I can’t find his work from that time. But film reels show a bounty of fake foods on display for the dictator’s proud perusal. Behind mounds of bread and baskets of fruit, purveyors’ grins plastered wide in the camera’s light.
“At least in wartime,” goes a Romanian joke of the 1980s, “there was more to eat.”
Just before our visit, the villagers near the orchard vandalized its walls, broke bottles against it. My grandmother’s friends gave it up soon after repatriation. Had there been hostilities toward the orchard’s former residents? Had there been hostilities toward this old regime newscaster? How many villagers had owned a television?
Did they eat green plums in the 1980s?
In Seattle, plums catch that rare summer light that almost makes suffering through long gray winters worthwhile. Once, a man and his two young boys pulled a red wagon full of plums down the street, offering strangers fruit from their yard. I didn’t eat those red wagon plums but I did store them in my memory. I transported them to that old fruitless orchard I may never see again.
For a long time, I found the idea of sugar plums and plum pudding charming. And then I actually tried plum pudding (it contains no plums) and despaired at tarlike goop. There was no relation to the dumpling of my yesteryear with its sugar-dappled wrapping, its blue-skinned, red-tinged, yellow-fleshed center. A dancing fairy did not pirouette in my mouth. Yet I still love the idea of William Carlos Williams eating all the plums in the icebox. I still love the idea of little Jack Horner sticking his thumb in a pie and thinking himself (wrongly?) a good boy. I still imagine little Vanya hiding behind a curtain, about to sink his teeth into a stolen plum.
Drinking in Albania: Pieroni, Andrea. “People and Plants in Lëpushë.” Ethnobotany in the New Europe: People, Health and Wild Plant Resources. Ed. Manuel Pardo-de-Santayana, Andrea Pieroni, and Rajindra K. Puri. New York: Berghahn Books, 2010.
Drinking in Maramureș: Kligman, Gail. The Wedding of the Dead: Ritual, Poetics, and Popular Culture in Transylvania. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Interwar Romania: Seton-Watson, Hugh. Eastern Europe Between the Wars, 1918–1941. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1945.
Farmers in California: Brantley, Chip. The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.
Nutritional value: Walkowiak-Tomczak, Dorota. “Characteristics of Plums as Raw Material with Valuable Nutritive and Dietary Properties.” Polish Journal of Food & Nutrition Sciences, vol. 58, no.4, 2008, pp.401-405.
Types of plums: Julia Ellen Rogers. The Tree Book: A Popular Guide to a Knowledge of the Trees of North America and to Their Uses and Cultivation. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905
Keeping evil at bay: "Plum." East Asian Plants: A Cultural and Horticultural Guide. University of Kansas, n.d. Web.
The plum in Chinese poetry: Fränkel, Hans. “The Plum Tree in Chinese Poetry,” Asiatische Studien, vol. 6, 1952, pp. 88-115.
For Romania under Ceauşescu, cf. the documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, 2010.
Anca L. Szilágyi’s writing appears in Electric Literature, Gastronomica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the inaugural Artist Trust/Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award and is at work on a novel.
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