Sunday, March 04, 2007


When I was in primary school and still young enough to think that parents knew everything, I was convinced that prunes were not plums before they became prunes. I thought this because my father had told me that, ‘Prunes are prunes’. At the time this seemed like some great existential revelation (although of course I did not know of existentialism then), a sort of Being and Nothingness of the fruit universe. He used to travel for his work and he told me that he had seen how prunes grew. In my head, I imagined that prunes grew in the way that grapes did, in trestled vineyards, and pickers would come along, hands clad in canvas gloves, and pluck the shrivelled but still moist fruits from their stems.

Impressed with this new information I stored it in my mind, only to discover that I had occasion to retrieve it far sooner than I might have expected. As part of a worksheet exercise in class one day, there was a question that asked ‘What is a prune?’ Before learning from my father about the Zen of prunes, I too would have answered, ‘a dried plum’. Equipped with this new counter-intuitive knowledge, however, I insisted that, ‘Prunes are prunes’, and nothing would dissuade me from my conviction.

The teacher tried very hard to convince me, even going so far as to show me a concise dictionary entry which stated that a prune was indeed ‘a dried plum’. At that point I conceded—outwardly, at least. On the way home from school, I continued the discussion with my friend. I said that I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the teacher’s proof because it was clear for anyone to see that prune pits were quite a different shape to those of plums: prune pits were more oval and had sharp pointed ends, while plum pits were round.

Much to my chagrin, my friend didn't agree with me. I forget the exact details of her argument but she was more adamant than I was about the genealogy of the prune. I recall eventually admitting that perhaps prunes were dried plums, but wondered if she would concede that they weren’t the same variety of plum that we were familiar with in the fresh form? She never really did acknowledge my observation, and stubbornly insisted that I admit that prunes were dried plums without any mitigating details.

Since then, I hadn’t really thought of The Prune Incident, but I was reminded of it recently when I began buying trays of sugar plums from my favourite green grocer. I’d never tried this variety of plum before, but at $3.99 for 750g, they seemed worth trying.

After I ate the first one and saw the oblong shaped pit with pointy ends, I wondered if at last I had encountered the variety of plum that was the precursor of the prune as I knew it. I haven’t checked any sources, but I’m convinced the sugar plum is the prune plum.

Not only is the pit the right shape, but the shape and size of this plum are more similar to the dried prune than the large round variety of plum that was a treat every summer when I was growing up.

Just looking up ‘prune’ in another dictionary now, I see one of the definitions is:

prune³ proon, n a plum (obs); a dried plum; a plum suitable for drying (US)

Is it worth mentioning that prune can also mean ‘a dud teacher pilot (airmen’s slang); [and] a despised or silly “friend” person (colloq)’?


David said...

There is nothing worse than a teacher who won't take his/her students' concerns seriously, unless it's an unsupportive friend. I admire you for problematising this issue. And your theory seems pretty rational too. But what was your father playing at? Was he tricking or did he have more prune knowledge than he let on?

Kirsty said...

Hmmm, I don't know. For a long time I thought that it was just another piece of evidence in the mounting pile that my father was a compulsive and inveterate liar. Now, especially after reading that 'prune' can also refer to the undried fruit--if only obscurely and in the US--I think he might have actually known a bit more about prunes than your average teacher.

Tseen said...

you can see how the prune/plum controversy continues to this day:

I've finally updated my blog, too. it was starting to look a bit tragic.

Kirsty said...

Hah, hah. Thanks for pointing that out Tseen. I especially like the person who argued 'I MUST SAVE THE PRUNE'. Oh the things that we will fight to the death...

Anyhoo, it is good to have the Banana Lounge back in working order. Your virtual presence was missed.

Heather Harmon said...

I was long under the conviction that prunes were the term for dried plums and would ardently defend my position. However as one obsessed with cooking and gardening I have learned that the prune is a member of the plum fruit family.

Prunes are a firmer oblong shaped fruit most commonly used for drying, baking, and whole canned fruits. Plums are a softer rounded fruit most often used for fresh eating and jam or jelly making. Check out the following site for details:

I just happen to be in the process of canning plum jams and whole prunes today so I have a four varieties in my kitchen today. Golden Egg Plums, Purple Damson Prunes, a red Italian prune, and Green Gage plums. They are all delicious. The main variation is that the plums are softer and sweeter and don't keep for long. The prunes are firm and have a tarter sweet flavor when ripe. Just don't eat too many! (grin)

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