In “Learn to Be Amused” (the third chapter of Julia Child Rules) Karen Karbo wrote, “Her impulse to engage, to get involved, to mix things up, to see what happens when you do x instead of y was compulsive.” As the mother of many children, as a social agitator, an agent of change, a rabble-rouser at the local level, I can relate to that. Unlike my husband, I enjoy change for the sake of change.
Maybe it’s that I’m a Gemini. Maybe it’s genetics. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were married six, four, and five times, respectively; my father married three times. We are a hopeful people, undeterred by the disappointment of broken promises. We love. We unlove. We love again.
Unloving is something not many people discuss even though 41 percent of first marriages, 60 percent of second marriages, and 73 percent of third marriages end in divorce. According to the law offices of Mckinley Irvin, a divorce in the United States occurs every 13 seconds. In my family, when someone was unloved, they disappeared. A lot of people vanished during my early childhood: My mom. My siblings. Uncles, aunts, cousins.
My mother-in-law was a passionate woman: artist, golfer, and matriarch whose generosity and graciousness were evident from the moment we were introduced. She didn’t point out the obvious: I was twenty years younger than her son, and his wife had passed away only six months before. She gave me a hug, and invited me into her home.
Del was nearly seventy when I first met her, yet she was engaging and attractive, full of the vim and vigor of life. She traveled to Australia with us, staying in youth hostels that sold bread by the slice. She’d traveled to many countries staying at world class resorts, but felt comfortable everywhere. She had been married twice herself, and had a few other significant partners in her life. She was the kindest lover and unlover I’ve ever met. She had warm relationships with each of her exes. She respected the people she’d once loved, even if she was no longer in love with them.
In her later years, Del started to have difficulty with her memory. A few weeks before she died, she refused food and medications. She asked the doctor, who compassionately agreed to a house call since Del refused to go in, “Can you get my mind back?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“Then I’m ready to go,” she said. “Can you help me?”
“I can’t help you,” the doctor said, “but I can make you comfortable.” He arranged hospice. Del continued to refuse food or medication. With quiet determination and grace, she grew less and less engaged with all of us who loved her.
“Don’t be sad,” she said. “I’ve had a good life.” Her body grew weak and she withdrew into her private journey toward death. It was terribly sad that we would no longer have her to visit and love. It was equally a gift to care for her as she left. I remember wondering why we couldn’t always give tender care to those who are leaving.
Something about prunes made me think of this. Maybe because prunes are an old-fashioned kind of fruit, succulent and sweet.
The second recipe I found in the Goodwill bins was handwritten on a goldenrod-colored unlined index card. The ink was from a fountain pen. The recipe is labeled “Prune Cake (Dorothy Strong) and contains a list of ingredients and some general directions. It lacks the specificity of a Julia Child’s recipe but is not at all out of step with recipe cards of that era.
I Google-searched the name Dorothy Strong to see if I might locate any information about the woman who is referenced on this recipe card. The name is not uncommon, and there are too many to hazard a guess.
Prunes originated from Asia, and came to Europe from Syria, then to North America around the time of the gold rush. Louis Pellier reportedly brought French saplings west on his quest to discover gold. By 1900, this site for Taylor Brothers Farms reports, there were over 90,000 acres of trees in California. About that same time, orchards were cropping up near Salem, Oregon. Between 1905 and 1930, approximately 70 prune driers were in operation near Salem.
By 1940, prunes were starting to show some decline in popularity. On July 28, 1941, the Reading Eagle ran an article about the State College of Agriculture advising the Prune Institute to increase the glamour associated with its product. In 2001, the FDA gave prune growers permission to relabel their product as dried plums, but denied their request to relabel the juice as dried plum juice.
True to this decision, the products I selected to make Dorothy Strong’s Prune Cake were labeled accordingly. Granddaughter Faith was playing the game of Life with her dad, so I made the cake alone today.
I gathered everything, then combined the dry ingredients as indicated. Well, not exactly as indicated. The recipe says, “Sift dry ingredients together three times.” I didn’t notice the word sift, so I mixed them well.
The next direction is “Add other ingredients.” I wondered if it mattered which order. I decided to cream the shortening and sugar, add the eggs, then the fruit. The fruit was a problem. I sort of anticipated that my KitchenAid 5-Quart Tilt-Head Stand Mixer would moosh up the fruit within the batter of other ingredients. That was not the case. The batter coated and clung to the the whole prunes. For a brief moment I considered plucking the prunes out of the batter, rinsing them off, and cutting them up, but then I decided, Hey, live like Julia! She was the queen bee of see what happens when you do x instead of y. I took the remaining prunes in the package, chopped them into fine pieces, and added them and the chopped nuts to the batter.
I baked the cake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. After cooling about five minutes, a two-inch wide strip in the center of the cake fell about 1/2 inch. That was disappointing, but it didn’t affect the taste.
I served it warm with a dollop of whipped cream. If I were serving it cold, I’d consider a cream cheese frosting, similar to what you might put on carrot cake. Or you could warm it and serve it with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream.
It has an earthy, rich flavor with a hint of molasses-type sweetness. It’s a forgiving recipe–you can go x instead of y–that turns out a hearty autumn treat.
Serve it to those you love–
And those you unlove, if you can.