Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Italian Prunes, Oregon History

It is so awesome having dogs. For one thing, they force me to get out and exercise. It helps mitigate the effects of sitting on my duff in front of the computer most of the day, not to mention burning off some of the calories that accrue in writing about food (and, of course, eating it). Plus it gets me out onto the streets where I can survey the latest goings-on from who's remodeling or moving to who's doing some new landscaping (or not).

This time of year is particularly good for taking stock of the bounty available from Portland's street trees. All I have to do is look down, since the sidewalks are littered with walnuts, apples and chestnuts, not to mention my favorite windfall items, Italian prunes.

A fascinating piece of history that I ran across on a research tangent the other day is that we owe the introduction of the Italian prune to Oregon to one Dr. Orlando Pleasant Shields Plummer* (right). Not only does he have a really cool name, he was a medical doctor and professor (and the first dean of the medical school at Willamette University), a telegraph operator and a fruit farmer. He was also elected to both the Portland City Council (1865-66) and the Oregon Legislative Assembly (in 1880 and 1882).

An avid horticulturist, he owned a 20-acre fruit farm in Southwest Portland, planting his first prune trees, a variety called Fellenberg, in the late 1850s. By 1927, one source indicates, there were 55,000 acres of Italian prunes growing on farms in Oregon and Clark County, Washington. Obviously some were also planted in parking strips in my neighborhood, and their fruit makes a mighty fine crisp.

Italian Prune Crisp

For the topping:
1 c. flour

3/4 c. uncooked rolled oats

1 c. brown sugar

1/2 Tbsp. cinnamon

1/2 c. melted butter or margarine

For the fruit:

4-6 c. Italian prunes, pitted and quartered
1 c. sugar

1/4 c. water, triple sec or Cointreau
2 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 tsp. vanilla

Mix together dry ingredients in medium sized bowl. Pour in melted butter or margarine and stir with fork to distribute. When well-mixed and crumbly, scatter on top of fruit in pan (below).

Slice fruit into large mixing bowl. Add sugar, water, cornstarch and vanilla and mix thoroughly. Put in 9” by 12” by 2” baking pan. Scatter topping mixture over the top and bake in 350 degree oven for 50 min. to 1 hr.

* The source for this information is from Corning, Howard M. (1989) "Dictionary of Oregon History," Binfords & Mort Publishing, p. 199. Other sources credit nurseryman Henderson Luelling with the introduction of the Italian prune to the state around the same time.


Susan M. said...

Having corgis myself, I was sure you were going to say your dog loves to eat the dropped plums. My recently departed (half Pembroke/half Cardi) sat under the tree, nibbled off the ripe fruit and deposited the pits in a pile. HE needed his walks to work off all that extra food he was helping himself to.

Kathleen Bauer said...

One of mine seems to like the early plums from a neighbor's tree, another likes to chew on the acorns from our oak and all three are partial to the…ahem…gifts that the neighbors' cats deposit about the neighborhood.

cathy said...

Wow... delicious. I can't think of a better way to eat these plums. When I was growing up in CA, we had a small orchard of these, and I'm still devoted to them.

Unknown said...

I used to not like plums. On the east coast I never saw an Italian plum. I think I'm charmed by their dusty blue color like a giant blueberry. And I discovered that this type has a very tart center which I really like.

A friend made a spicy plum salsa with lime, jalapeno and cilantro and it was about the best thing I've had in a while.
I think I'm plum converted.

Kathleen Bauer said...

Cathy, the crunchy, granola-ish topping goes really well with them, though I imagine a nice biscuit-y cobbler would be equally lovely!

Kathleen Bauer said...

Jane, I'm so glad you've seen the light (or the dark, as the case may be)! That salsa sounds delicious…and shows the versatility of the fruit!

Cock o' the Trail said...

I wuz practically raised on stewed dried unpitted prunes in Upstate New York in the 1930's. And, I still like them a lot, topped with a bit of sour cream. But, they are no longer available here . . . just the pitted product (denying one the pleasure of undeniable pleasure of separating the pit and spitting it out!) Just not the same . . . Sunsweet packs a canned productin glass - with heavy syrup ?!, which by the way is undercooked and difficult as to separating the pit. And, that's an expensive way to buy unpitted prunes. Here in New York State, Cornell U. a century ago came up with an Italian prune type named for a local community, Stanley, NY. But that's hard to find these days. Tsk, what'll I do anymore?

Kathleen Bauer said...

Hi CoT. Thanks for sharing. Have you tried your farmers' market? I'm guessing at least one farmer will have some prunes. You could e-mail the manager who should have a good idea of what they've had in the past, or maybe suggest a farm that grows them. Reach out!

Thanks for reading,