The "dried plum" versus "prune" debate explained
This week's blog features a story by my husband, Wes Jarrell, a native Oregonian fruit farmer
My dad was born in Illinois, on a farm near Elburn, in 1925. The family had moved up from Arkansas to work on a big farm owned by the Hoyt family. Grandpa was a skinny wiry guy, but he said they had to go back south because “There weren’t nothin’ between me and the North Pole but a bob wire fence.” He didn’t mention that the harness for those big draft horses they used to plow heavy prairie soils was heavy for a slight fellow to lift.
After two hard years in Illinois, they moved back to Oklahoma where Grandpa worked in the oil fields a while; when that job played out, they moved back to Arkansas. Ten years later, in 1937, the family starved out for good and decided to move to Oregon, where some relatives were already working. There was steady money to be made picking fruit, and that sure beat trying to eke out a corn crop on rocky hill ground, in a continual drought.
They had a choice about conveyance to Oregon: spend all the money they had on a Model A Ford or spend all the money they had on Greyhound bus tickets for the seven of them. Grandpa thought about it; Grandma didn’t. She told him “If that Ford breaks down, you’ll never figure out how to fix it, and we’ll be stuck in the desert!” So, they got Greyhound tickets.
After four months working in the fields and picking fruit, they could afford to buy a Model A. Soon thereafter, a rough hill farm just west of Forest Grove came up for sale, for taxes. They scraped together a payment on it and move up there, to a fallen-down farmhouse barely livable.
But the farm had orchards and a Concord grape vineyard. The orchards had a few peaches, but mostly prunes: Italian (“Eye-talian” in Arkansawyer) and petites. Italians were good sized and purple, and when they dried, they looked like any other prune, dark blue-black.
But the petites! Smaller (more petite) than the Italians, a beautiful shiny red-rust color with orange and yellow highlights. As pretty as the skin was, the flavor and sweetness inside was what made these treasures. When they dried, they were like candy, which was great because we almost never got real store-bought candy.
By the ‘50’s Grandpa still had the Italian prune orchard, but only a few petite trees. In the ‘30’s nearly every prune farm had its own wood-fired prune drier on site; both my parent’s farm and my Grandad’s had old drier ruins on them. Gradually a few farmers started sending their fruit to another farmer’s drier, so by the early ‘60’s, there was only one prune drier around, just over the hill from our farm. Because petites ripened earlier than Italians, and there weren’t many of them, the driers didn’t want to start up early for just a little bit of fruit, so the market for petites evaporated.
I started looking for commercial petites probably 40 years ago, and never found any for sale. My dad found a couple trees that were like “petites” and planted them; they produce a nice fruit very close to the originals. I’ve come to the conclusion that petites are a type of French prune, but there’s still some ambiguity about that. I’ve never seen anything on the market called a “petite.”
Just to be clear, there is a difference between a prune-plum and a regular plum. Regular plums are meant to be picked from the tree and eaten fresh; they are juicy and low in solids. They don’t dry worth a darn, partly because they are so watery.
Prunes, on the other hand, are harvested dead-ripe. In fact, when they were starting to get ripe we shook the tree branches just enough so the ripest fruit fell on the ground, and we picked it up off the ground into buckets, that then were dumped into wooden bushel boxes. We’d come back in a few days and shake again, sometimes a third time. My dad disked the orchard soil, so it was soft and didn’t damage the prunes when they fell. That also meant that when it started raining in early September, the soil turned to soupy mud, that caked up on your knees as you were crawling around picking the prunes up off the ground. A long day of that, and you were tired! Plus, it had probably rained on you once or twice.
Now my dad (94 this year) still picks the “EyeTalians” and the petites, splits them, and dries them just right, then stores them in the freezer. I think most of them come to Illinois with Leslie and me when we visit “the folks.” And now Jeff Hake from Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains is making them into a delectable fruit leather that just happens to pair perfectly with our cheese!
How to get our products in this era of pandemic/social distancing
Our local independent retail food stores have really stepped up to the plate to carry many local farm products, including our cheese. We thank the following:
Common Ground Food Coop (Urbana)
World Harvest -Strawberry Fields (Urbana)