There are two truths about pie crusts, according to a column published by The Charleston Evening Post on March 22, 1945: A well-made crust will always be considered the pinnacle of kitchen achievement, and bakers will never agree on how to make a crust well.
Dispensing with the contentious issues of water temperature, baking powder and flour types, the columnist moved on to something universally liked: Prune filling.
Fortune seekers from around the world descended on California after a carpenter found flakes of gold in a river near the Sierra Nevadas. A few of them who noticed the land was as potentially lucrative as the water ended up shelving their gold pans and buying orchards: In 1856, Louis Pellier grafted French rootstocks onto wild plum trees, creating the first U.S. plum crop. By the close of the century, 90,000 California acres were dedicated to plum production.
The vast majority of plums were dried prior to sale, which made sense in an era when transportation and food storage systems were relatively unsophisticated.
According to the California Dried Plum Board, there were 85 plum packing operations statewide in 1900. But growers still had trouble keeping up with prune demand, stoked by an influx of European immigrants: Trying to sidestep the cost of hiring pickers, one plum farmer in 1905 purchased 500 Panamanian monkeys to serve as harvesters (unfortunately, they shared the American public’s fondness for the fruit.)
Worried that inferior product would upend the industry’s reputation, plum growers in 1908 formed a trade association. The following decades brought a heap of prune advancements, including prune juice and tenderized prunes, and organized prune promotions. “Prunes are excellent, healthful and economical,” a Charleston Evening Post columnist in 1925 assured readers. In 1941, Americans ate more prunes than ever before.
“Many of us will remember going to Dr. (Carter) Woodson’s office and sitting beside his desk while he ate dry prunes,” Pearlie Cox Harrison wrote in “The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro,” published in 1958 by The National Council of Negro Women.
But the practice of snacking on prunes, which also were prominently featured in spice cakes, jellies and whips during their heyday, faltered in the latter part of the 20th century. In its official prune history, the California Dried Plum Board implies it may have made a mistake in 1975 when it suspended advertising. The board returned to marketing prunes in the 1980s, but the “High Fiber Fruit Campaign” may have contributed to the belief that prunes are only appropriate for older eaters fighting constipation. By 2000, annual per capita prune consumption stood at .39 pounds, or about a dozen prunes per person.
That same year, U.S. prune farmers successfully petitioned the federal government to allow them to market their product as “dried plums.” They were motivated by research showing 90 percent of consumers were more likely to enjoy a dehydrated fruit snack if it went by a name other than “prune.”
Still, prunes haven’t entirely shaken off their association with the elderly. Several studies have shown prunes are most popular with an older demographic: What the prune growers don’t yet know is whether The Silent Generation developed a taste for prunes as children, or if the palate veers toward prunes as it ages, “which would mean higher consumption rates would continue in future generations,” University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center notes hopefully.
Prior to the advent of prune whip, the pureed prune-and-whipped cream concoction that Dwight D. Eisenhower named as a favorite food, prunes were largely reserved for snacks between meals and the breakfast table. “We agree that prunes make a delicious breakfast fruit, but is that any reason why you shouldn’t make use of them at other meals too?” The Charleston Evening Post in 1942 admonished readers in the introduction to a recipe for prune chiffon pie.
Three years later, another prune pie recipe appeared in the paper’s pages. Prune cream pie was considerably more elaborate than its predecessor: The prune juice and egg whites featured in the prune chiffon pie were dressed up with coconut and marmalade.
“I’ve got to admit, I was a little grossed out by the whole prune thing,” Addie Spann of Addie Mae’s Cakery in Moncks Corner admits. “It’s definitely not the fruit of choice these days.”
Spann’s first challenge involved finding quality prunes: She settled on Trader Joe’s dehydrated plums, which she soaked overnight in bourbon. “To reconstitute them,” she explains. “Meaning a little less pruny.” She also swapped out the molasses for brown sugar, and substituted tart cherry juice for prune juice. “It took the prune flavor down,” a relieved Spann says.
Although it made the pie more work, Spann diced the prunes, since she wasn’t sure modern eaters would care for whole prunes in their pastry.
“It came out beautifully,” she says. “If I was at an older person’s house, and they invited me to take a piece of it, I would.”