Plums, and therefore prunes, exist only because of grafting, one of the weirdest forms of genetic engineering I’ve ever heard of, and also one of the oldest. I’m hazy on the actual methods, but as far as I understand it, a branch from one plum tree is cut off. Another plum tree is given an incision. The new branch is taped to the tree so that the surfaces of the two wounds are joined. The two trees then grow as one; their fruit somehow magically gets better through hybridization.
Meanwhile, planting a plum pit and hoping for the best results simply in a reversion to the original wild blackthorn shrub that gives forth sour sloes suitable for flavoring gin but not much else. The human-created stone fruit was known to the ancient Egyptians; the earliest known fossilized manipulated plum stones date from the twenty-second century B.C. Historically, the best plums for drying into prunes were Agens, from Aquitaine, France, which were not very juicy, but were extremely sweet. Now perfectly excellent prunes are grown everywhere, from Africa to California.
Prunes are usually cooked with meat, primarily with wild game; the fruit’s sweet earthiness complements the animal gaminess in a long, slow-cooked mélange. A traditional Belgian recipe involves wild-caught rabbit, prunes, bacon, and beer or wine. A Tuscan stew called cinghiale in dolce e forte, or sweet-and-sour boar, features a sort of Italian mole; it’s made with wild boar, prunes, and chocolate, along with pine nuts, wine, spices, herbs, juniper berries, and candied orange peel. It’s cooked all day in a clay pot and in Florence is traditionally eaten at Christmas.
One English stew recipe calls for venison, prunes, and chestnuts, another for beef, prunes, and cinnamon. A Croatian recipe uses a red-wine marinade to tenderize wild elk or moose medallions, which are seared, sautéed with prunes, tomatoes, and aromatics, and served with small dumplings. The French make roasted quail with prunes and Armagnac; a classic Moroccan lamb or beef tagine contains them too; and the Swedes stuff a pork roast with prunes and cook it in beef broth with accordion-cut potatoes.
A Mexican dish called pollo a la basura, or chicken à la trash, is comprised of chicken breasts browned in onion and garlic and poblanos, stewed with potatoes and prunes, and served with pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. This dish rose from lowly staff-meal status to an exalted menu favorite at a Mexico City restaurant, where the chef Pati Jinich discovered it, learned the recipe, and stuck it into a cookbook.
The association of the prune with meat, especially game, goes back a long way. A thirteenth-century Andalusian recipe, translated into English as “fish in the style of Jimli,” instructs the cook to put a fish “in the tagine and to throw in vinegar and a little murri naqui(medieval Arabic fermented barley paste), pepper, saffron, cinnamon, spikenard (also called nard, nardin, or musk root, it’s a flowering plant of the valerian family), galangal (a kind of ginger), and a little mastic (a plant resin also known as gum arabic), citron leaves, and pulped prunes soaked in vinegar; scatter over it chopped almonds and garlic cloves wrapped in sprigs of thyme, and plenty of oil; put in a moderate oven and leave until the sauce is dry and the top browns, then leave a while and take out.”
Prunes, being fruit, are naturally also cooked into desserts. Warm prunes and custard is a traditional school-lunch fare in Britain. The dish comes with a game (prunes and game, that immortal combination): You get the pits out, line them around the edge of your bowl, and recite, “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,” one occupation per pit. The name you hit on when you reach your last stone is your fate; it’s either the job of the future man you’ll marry or what you’ll become yourself.
Another classic is a prune-and-Armagnac tart from Périgord, France, made with a short crust and tea-soaked prunes tossed in Armagnac; it’s a not-too-sweet variation on a flan. And the gourmet mail-order company D’Artagnan sells something they call a French Kiss, an Armagnac-soaked prune into which is piped a “sweet, creamy mousse of foie gras.” This confection, preposterous in theory but no doubt delectable in reality, is billed on the purveyor’s Web site as “the perfect amuse-bouche.”
Prunes are also good plain, as snacks, straight out of the can (or bag, or box). They’re like sticky, moist little pillows; their taste is dark and full of fruity umami. The hard, longish pit emerges through the plummy sweetness. Even as a kid, I liked prunes; my mother always seemed to have them on hand — ordinary Sunsweet prunes in a cardboard box. Left too long in the cupboard, they dried out, but if you soaked them for a minute or two in hot water, they bounced right back.
Maybe because we had no junk food — none whatsoever — in our house, ever, prunes could almost seem like a treat to me if I didn’t think too hard about it (just like raisins; graham crackers; Triscuits; and cottage cheese, which I would eat with salt and pepper). Evidently, something happens to those of us who are deprived of chemical-laden treats; like lab rats fed only dry pellets day in, day out, our palates recognize and crave anything, anything at all, that smacks of decadence. If we’d had all the stuff my friends had in their houses to snack on in orgies of junky delirium in front of the TV after school — Hostess Ding Dongs, Pop-Tarts, Ruffles, mini Snickers bars — I would almost certainly have turned my nose up at anything so weird and healthy.
I knew all the jokes, of course — the term stewed prunes sounds hilarious and disgusting when you’re under twelve — it’s a notorious staple on every geriatric rest-home breakfast table, an edible form of Ex-Lax, an old people’s remedy for old people’s problems. That didn’t deter me. In fact, Dr. Pepper was my favorite soda, because I (mistakenly) believed it contained prune juice.
In short, I was a young prune eater in a prune-averse world. So it’s no surprise that as an adult, I flat out adore that wizened little fruit, especially in a sauce with rosemary and garlic, cooked with pork tenderloin, a dish my boyfriend, Brendan, makes on special occasions. It’s a luscious combination, the rich, pruney, porky sweetness piqued by garlic and rosemary. I call it my death-row dinner, meaning that I would request it, along with the roasted potatoes and mezzaluna-chopped broccoli rabe sautéed in garlic Brendan always serves it with, to be my last meal before I was sent to the electric chair to be fried.